So far this year, five prison employees have died from attacks by inmates. Four of those deaths were the result of an Oct. 12 escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Institution. The breakout failed, but the inmates in the prison's sewing shop set a fire and attacked guards with the tools used in the shop, including screwdrivers and scissors. Just before the disturbance began, only one guard was monitoring more than 30 prisoners in the shop, along with the sewing instructor.
The attacks at the Pasquotank prison put a new spotlight on the conditions that prison guards face throughout the state's correctional system. According to The Associated Press, that prison was 28 percent short of its full complement of 266 correctional officers at the time of the attack. That's not unusual for this state's prisons. At the same time the Bertie Correctional Institution was 26 percent short, and the guard staff at Hyde Correctional Institution was down 38 percent. Turnover in many of the state's prisons is 100 percent a year — every guard position turns over annually. It's a personnel nightmare, with inexperienced guards more the rule than the exception.
Why? More than anything else, it's a dangerous job. East Carolina University recently surveyed more than 1,200 of the state's prison guards and their supervisors. Nearly 90 percent of them said they believe there's a good chance they'll get hurt on the job from inmate violence. And nearly 40 percent of them said they wanted to quit. Many of the state's prisons are located in rural areas, which makes recruiting even harder.
State prison officials told the News & Observer that they're making progress in hiring more guards and they hope to have at least some prisons fully staffed in the near future. But the challenge is keeping them that way.
And the violence raises another question: Are those prisons safe for their employees even when they're fully staffed? Budget cuts across the state bureaucracy during and after the recession have reduced staffing at virtually every state institution. The prisons weren't immune to those staff reductions. Continuing emphasis in the general assembly on lean budgeting may have made violent, dangerous conditions in the state's prisons a permanent condition, even if the prison system achieves its unlikely goal of full staffing.
Although lawmakers approved salary increases for officers at maximum-security prisons, the pay now averages $38,000 a year. That's not great money for a job in which guards are almost continuously in the presence of violent criminals, many of whom are prone to a rage that incarceration only exacerbates. North Carolina's guards still earn $8,000 a year less than the national average for that job.
How does North Carolina change that? The only clear option is to spend more money. It's clear that even if they were fully staffed, our prisons still wouldn't have enough guards to ensure safety. If lawmakers were to do some benchmarking, they'd find that the states that pay better money have close to full staffing in their prisons. In Pennsylvania and California, about 3 percent of the guard positions are open at any given time. The vacancy rate is half that in New Jersey.
Or there is one other approach, but it isn't one that will sit well with the lock-them-up-and-lose-the-key crowd: We could stop sending so many people to jail for such long terms. Mandatory sentencing guidelines are one part of the problem. We're not suggesting that violent criminals should get free passes out of jail, but there's plenty of room for change in the way we deal with nonviolent offenders.
But even if prison populations are reduced, those who are behind bars will still be a pretty violent lot, and better pay will go a long way to attracting people willing to guard them. This is one of the places in government where we're going to get exactly what we pay for.
REPRINTED FROM THE JACKSONVILLE DAILY NEWS