Outgoing NC Department of Correction Secretary Alvin Keller today accused the media of "mischaracterizations and exaggerations" in reporting on poor living conditions for mentally ill inmates at Central Prison.
The AP report and our subsequent reporting were based on the state's own internal audit, initiated after a higher-ranking administrator filled a shift at the ward.
The report, available here, found too many problems to list in one story. They include inmates locked up in isolation for weeks on end in contradiction to doctors' orders, pools of human waste in cells, floors so sticky with grime the auditor's shoes stuck to them, reported pest problems, incorrect dosing of inmates, poor supervision of suicidal inmates, faulty record-keeping, and chronic understaffing of and undertraining for workers who care for those prisoners.
Even Governor Bev Perdue didn't question the reporting when we asked her about it earlier this week.
"This kind of behavior that was documented in the article is unacceptable, it’s unacceptable to [incoming Corrections chief] Jennie Lancaster, it’s unacceptable to [current Corrections Secretary] Al Keller, and I believe you’ll see an end to it as we move into the new hospital," she said.
Keller, however, insists the media reporting has been overblown.
"The facility is clean and appropriately staffed," his statement today said in bold letters.
"All cells were not soaked with urine," he also said, refuting a claim the news report did not make.
"There are times when mental health patients spread urine and feces in their cells. These instances are unfortunate and in many cases compete with other safety situations. Regardless, there are sanitation protocols that are and must be continually reinforced," Keller said. He didn't explain how that might change in the new hospital.
Perdue's critics have asked why no one has lost their job over the conditions at Central. Keller's statement implies someone might have.
"The day after the report was provided to my office, a member of my executive team addressed the serious nature of the Central Prison operational issues and management deficiencies reflected in this report with the warden," Keller's statement said. "Following that meeting, the warden made it known that he had prepared his retirement paperwork and would be submitting it immediately."
That warden's name was Gerald Branker. A DOC press release about his promotion to warden in 2007 says he began his career at Central Prison as a corrections officer in 1979, working his way up through the ranks to become deputy warden under Marvin Polk, the leader he succeeded.
Keller says a new warden has been selected for Central: Kenneth Lassiter, currently the superintendent at Charlotte Correctional Center.
Keller, who has served as Correction Secretary since 2009, will not be Correction Division chief under the new Department of Public Safety. A spokeswoman for Gov. Bev Perdue says the change in leadership is not connected to the Central Prison report.