RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Two years after deadly attacks at the Bertie and Pasquotank prisons, North Carolina is struggling to fill vacant prison jobs, with some lawmakers floating a $200 million proposal to improve pay.
Prison Commissioner Todd Ishee told state lawmakers Tuesday that on average two employees are assaulted every day in the state’s prisons.
“We’re in some dark days,” he said. “Retention is a major issue for us and it’s not getting any better.”
He said employees are working mandatory overtime, which the state spent about $60 million on last year. The vacancy rate for correctional officers is about one in five, he said.
The state is in the process of closing three minimum-security prisons and transferring workers to other facilities with higher vacancy rates.
The “temporary suspension” of operations will begin with Hoke Correctional Institute in Raeford. The state is also closing Tyrrell Prison Work Farm in Columbia and Odom Correctional Institute in Jackson.
While there are no concrete plans to close additional facilities, Ishee acknowledged that’s a possibility.
Ardis Watkins, legislative affairs director for the State Employees Association of North Carolina, said prison workers are concerned the closures could further jeopardize their safety.
“They believe closing more prisons is only going to make this worse,” she said.
In an interview with CBS17, Ishee responded, “It’s going to make it more challenging because as prisons become more densely packed it becomes more challenging for our staff.”
During Tuesday’s hearing, lawmakers repeatedly described the situation as an “emergency” and said the conditions employees face are “dangerous.”
“This agency has basically been neglected for four decades,” said Sen. Bob Steinburg (R-11th).
While correctional officers and other prison workers received pay raises this year, many employees have complained they still fall below where they would like them to be.
Steinburg mentioned a plan to: raise starting pay to $40,000, implement a step structure for salaries and give prison workers a 25-year retirement plan. He said in the first year, that would cost the state $200 million and go down after that, such as through savings on overtime pay.
“Well, the biggest problem, as you can see, is related to recruitment and retention,” said Steinburg.
It’s not clear when, or if, the Senate will take up that plan.
CBS17 reached out to Pat Ryan, a spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger (R).
In an email, he wrote, “Senator Steinburg has done great work taking on the problems with our prison system and working to find solutions. Prison employees have received a 5% pay raise as well as bonuses for high-vacancy prisons, but we know that won’t fix everything. I can’t speak to whether any particular long-term idea will or won’t be successful, but Senator Steinburg has been a leader on this and that work will continue.”
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