Raleigh, N.C. — A few miles due south of Taylorsville, a western North Carolina town of about 2,000, Alexander Correctional Institution houses about 1,000 inmates in the state's highest-security environment.
Since opening in 2004, the facility has gained something of a reputation.
It's the prison where a mentally ill inmate was kept handcuffed in solitary confinement for five days before dying of thirst in March 2014, the place a 2007 National Geographic documentary referred to as "hell."
For years, Alexander Correctional and other large, close-custody prisons across the state have struggled with a particularly stubborn problem: They can't find enough officers to work there.
This winter, about one in five correctional officer positions sat vacant at Alexander Correctional. At the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh, the vacancy rate has averaged about 22 percent over the last two years. At Scotland, Bertie and Lanesboro – all close-custody prisons with inmate populations around 1,000 each – the average vacancy rate for correctional officers hovers around 10 percent.
The state Department of Public Safety says the shortages have not endangered public safety, but they have taken a toll on prison staff, who are forced to forgo time off and training to pick up the slack.
Corrections officials say they're hoping a multimillion-dollar infusion of cash from the state budget, currently making its way through the General Assembly, will raise long-stagnant salaries and aid in recruitment – particularly in North Carolina's toughest and most rural prisons.
"Salaries frozen for the amount of time they’ve been frozen, at the level we’ve paying entry-level staff, is part of the problem," Kenneth Lassiter, deputy director of operations for the state prison system, said. "We’re doing our best with the salaries we’re able to pay and the recruitment efforts we’re making."
Data provided to WRAL News by DPS show that, in the two years starting in March 2013, more than half of the 1,000-plus-bed close-custody facilities have seen an average double-digit vacancy rate among correctional officers. Month to month, that number can vary wildly, with facilities such as Alexander Correctional ricocheting between a low of 7 percent and a high of 22 percent.
Others, such as NCCIW, consistently post vacancies of 20 percent or more.
As of March 2015, the six largest close-custody facilities examined by WRAL News were short 337 positions, 17 percent of the total correctional officer posts.
"Those vacancies, they do impact some of what we do, so we take the fact that we have such high vacancies at our larger facilities to be major concerns for us," Lassiter said.
The problem is compounded by correctional officers on extended leave – legitimate, protected absences due to long-term illness, injury, military service or other reasons that prevent the department from replacing absent staff.
DPS figures show that, each month from 2013 to 2015, as many as a dozen correctional officers could be out on extended leave in a single prison, putting extra pressure on remaining staff. On a single day in early June, for example, 16 officers at Alexander Correctional were out on extended leave – 5 percent of the correctional officer positions at the prison.
The combination of vacancies and extended leave means there are fewer officers available to staff prison posts, some of which can't be left empty for safety reasons.
Citing security precautions, DPS officials would not release figures on the minimum number of officers required to operate prison facilities or whether they've approached that threshold.
Lassiter said corrections officials have security-driven procedures in place to minimize the effect of vacancies and long-term leave. That might mean combining some less essential posts in facilities or shipping in staff from other facilities, sometimes with lower custody levels (at Alexander, that practice stopped in mid-May).
"It's not like we have vacancies and we do nothing," Lassiter said. "We’re tracking this daily."
Prison managers can divert the intake of prisoners to other prisons with better staffing. In some cases, they're also tasking sergeants, lieutenants and captains with stepping in to fill shifts.
"It’s across the board as to who are making the sacrifices," Lassiter said.
Staff shortages also mean overtime: David Guice, commissioner of the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice, said the prison system's annual bill for overtime pay went from $12 million a few years ago to $21 million this year.
"We're working the soup out of our employees," Guice said.
Lassiter said vacancies have impacted both annual training and vacation time, which officers must reschedule when there's not enough staff to cover shifts.
"The high vacancy rate has a tremendous impact on our staff as it relates to them being able to be off and get away from this environment," he said.
Although the department has been busy streamlining the hiring process and recruiting through job fairs and advertising, particularly at community colleges and in military communities, prison leaders are looking for additional help from the legislature.
Judging by lawmakers' willingness to consider Gov. Pat McCrory's multimillion-dollar request for raises, the vacancy rate hasn't gone unnoticed.
"I think it's had a major impact," Lassiter said. "It's so major the governor has done something never done in my 25-year history."
Budget directs more state money to officers
Correctional officers who begin their careers in the state prison system will likely start at the bottom of the salary range, which as of Oct. 1, 2014, was $29,826 to $45,099. The same range applies whether officers work in minimum-security prisons or close-custody facilities.
On average across the state, personnel records show correctional officers make about $30,600 a year. Given his long history working in the North Carolina correctional system, Guice said he understands it can be hard for many officers to make ends meet.
"I remember how difficult it was to receive a check once a month, and two weeks in, I was out of money," he said. "When I talk with the rank and file throughout the system, there's great concern because of just not having enough money to take care of basic needs."
The governor asked for more than $20.8 million in funding from the General Assembly in 2016 for prison worker raises. If approved, Guice said it would be the first raise of any real significance since the 1980s.
While the state House and Senate budgets differ widely in many respects, pay for prison staff isn't one of those differences.
Both versions, which lawmakers hope to merge into a compromise in the next few of weeks, would phase in correctional officer raises starting in January, calling for $12.8 million in 2015 and $25.5 million in 2016.
The funding would implement recommendations already approved by state human resources officials to increase salaries for several types of prison workers based on the security level of the facility. Guice said the change acknowledges the vastly different responsibilities and risk at prisons supervising minimum-security, medium-security and close-custody inmates.
"You can't get anybody to work in close custody if they can work right down the road at a minimum camp for the same amount of money," he said.
Correctional officers would see an extra $1,000 to $8,000 in their annual pay – an 18 percent increase for top officers working at the state's toughest maximum-security prisons.
A pay bump like that, Guice said, "sends a great signal to the rank and file" and will be a huge help to recruitment efforts.
But prison leaders said filling vacancies will also require a "rebranding" of the job – an effort that continues more than a year after the dehydration death of inmate Michael Kerr in prison custody.
"Every profession has someone who makes a mistake. Unfortunately, when we make one, it’s put out there so badly that anyone on the cusp of thinking about corrections as a career may step back a little bit," Lassiter said. "We’re showing the positive that we do in the community, and we’re showing the community the importance of public safety as it relates to correction."
Human resources officials estimate that, to implement the pay raises, the state will need to commit a little more than $20 million in funding, which both the House and Senate budget versions would meet by the 2016 fiscal year.
Guice said they'll look for additional resources over the next few years to provide even more flexibility for pay.
In the meantime, prison officials will need to retain their staff in addition to recruiting them.
In 2014, state records show, about 1,500 correctional officers left the department or were dismissed from service, about 15 percent of the correctional officer positions in 56 prisons. Those 9,700 positions supervise about 38,000 inmate across the state.
Lassiter said he and other prison leaders are telling their officers that the vacancy rate is a top priority. They're encouraging officers to communicate with their supervisors when they need breaks and are asking for ideas about how to operate more effectively.
For the most part, he said, officers have been understanding.
"They know that when we hold someone over for overtime and tell someone they can’t have vacation, it is to make it a safer environment," Lassiter said.
The high vacancy rates haven't undercut the prison system's ability to care for inmates or keep the public safe, Lassiter said. But the issue is important enough that both Guice and DPS Secretary Frank Perry have committed to fixing the problem – and monitoring it closely.
"All I can say is: We'll ring the bell when we feel like it’s at the point where we can't manage any longer," Lassiter said. "We're far from that situation right now."