Former NC prisons chief calls for higher salaries, split from DPS to improve safety

Posted March 18, 2019 6:50 p.m. EDT
Updated March 18, 2019 6:57 p.m. EDT

— A former director of North Carolina's prison system told lawmakers Monday that major changes are needed to improve safety in state prisons.

Two years ago, an inmate killed a corrections officer at Bertie Correctional Institution, and four prison workers died during a failed prison break at Pasquotank Correctional Institution.

The five deaths made 2017 the deadliest year in the history of the state prison system, and lawmakers are looking at ways to make sure it never happens again.

Boyd Bennett, who worked in what was then known as the Department of Corrections for 36 years before retiring a decade ago, told members of a special Senate committee that understaffing is now the No. 1 safety issue for corrections workers, calling the number of vacant positions at some prisons alarming.

Independent investigators cited the undermanned staff at Pasquotank Correctional as a major factor in the fatal escape attempt.

Bennett said the understaffing also contributes to higher turnover among corrections workers, which just makes the problem worse.

"They've got posts that have to be covered – they don't have any other choice – and they can't shut down part of the prison just because they don't have staff," he said. "So, the staff that are there, it's apparently burning them out."

Lawmakers need to raise the pay for corrections workers to solve that problem, he said.

Corrections officers got a 4 percent raise in this year's state budget and are likely to see another increase in the 2019-20 budget.

Bennett also recommended splitting the Division of Adult Corrections off from the Department of Public Safety, where it was moved in 2012 as a way to save money during the state's budget crisis.

DPS is a "mega-agency" focused on law enforcement that isn't paying enough attention to the prison system, he said.

"Corrections is big. The budget is huge. It's spread out all over the state. It's complicated," he said. "It's too important, [and] it affects too many lives to be part of another agency."

Bennett also recommended reviewing and streamlining agency management. There are too many layers of middle management, he said, which can make it difficult to get things done and make it harder for workers' voices to be heard at the top.

The Senate panel is expected to send its recommendations to Senate leaders later this year.