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State DOC chief says he's ready for challenges

Alvin Keller says his past experience as a military judge and assistant attorney general has made him ready to lead the state's prison and probation system.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The new head of the state Department of Correction says that although his latest position is his first job in community corrections, he is up for the challenge.

Alvin Keller, appointed in January by Gov. Bev Perdue to replace former Secretary Theodis Beck, spent 30 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, spending part of that time as a military judge, and served as an assistant attorney general for the state the past four.

His past experience, he says, has made him ready to lead the state's prison and probation system.

"You have to be mission-oriented," he said. "You have to do everything possible to get the job done."

His first priority, he says, will be to protect the public. But the mission is a big one because of issues with probation and prison overcrowding.

The Division of Community Corrections, which runs the probation system, is struggling after the slayings of two local college students exposed serious problems in Wake and Durham probation offices.

Suspects in each case were overlooked by the system, and further study into why found that probation officers have heavy caseloads and are underpaid and undertrained and that employee turnover is high.

Robert Guy, the former probation chief, and Beck both retired amid the pressure.

Keller says he is looking at different options to increase pay for officers and providing ongoing training for employees.

"We're taking action to try to ensure that a probation officer is given every opportunity to deal with the probationers to whom he or she has been assigned," Keller said. "The goal is to try to ensure that person on probation has been given every opportunity to turn his or her life around so that he or she can be a productive citizen of this country."

In the prison system, inmates are pushing the capacity, and construction of new prisons isn't keeping pace.

As of Friday, the Department of Correction says the state's prison population is 40,130 – 386 prisoners more than the system's extended operating capacity of 39,744.

Construction is planned – and in some places under way – that will increase the prison capacity to 42,262 by 2011. According to projections by the state Sentencing Commission, the population will be at approximately 44,000 inmates.

Keller says he plans to call on those with experience on how to proceed.

"I'm inclined to listen to anyone," he said. "I think that's the prudent thing to do."

Perdue has asked Keller to identify the five biggest issues in his department and present them to her by next month.


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