The Orange Correctional Center is working short-staffed. There are 74 total staff members, 38 of whom are correctional officers, and Harrelson said he has six vacant positions. And Orange Correctional Center is not the only prison in the state with vacancies.
“Imagine this process in a facility with 1,800 inmates,” said Armstead Hodges, superintendent of Orange Correctional Center.
The N.C. Department of Public Safety employs about 12,000 correctional officers in its 56 prison facilities and has about 1,000 vacancies it needs to fill, said Keith Acree, a spokesman for DPS.
Data from the N.C. Department of Corrections show that on average, about 60 percent of correctional officers working at close custody prisons have five years of experience or fewer. About 43 percent at medium custody prisons have five years of experience or fewer, and 29 percent at minimum custody have that experience.
“We’ve got to find a way to retain people. We can no longer continue to have all of these vacancies — we’re losing more than we’re hiring,” said David Guice, commissioner of the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice.
But Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed budget could change things for the department. In his State of the State address, McCrory cited a statistic saying a correctional officer was assaulted every 11 hours in 2014, and nearly 300 of those incidents involved weapons.
“Correctional officers are confronting the most violent people in our state every minute of their day,” he said. “Some live under death threats, not only to them, but to their family. Working in this environment comes at a price.”
Correctional officers work 12-hour days, coming into work by 5:45 a.m. and not leaving until 5:30 p.m.
“It’s a tough job,” said Wendell Powell, a correctional sergeant at Wake Correctional Center in Raleigh. “You leave home when it’s dark, and when you leave the prison, it’s dark.”
Powell said correctional officers have a very attention-oriented job where they have to be conscious of every task they’re working on. They have the lives of inmates and officers in their hands, and even the smallest of mistakes can put someone in danger.
“Our staff works very hard not to make those mistakes, but they don’t get the credit of protecting our population the way police and sheriffs do,” he said.
McCrory’s proposal sets aside $21 million for the Department of Public Safety to update their pay schedule and increase the pay of 10,000 correctional officers, said Melanie Jennings, spokeswoman for the Office of State Budget and management.
“This is significant because it’s the first time the pay scale for correctional officers has been updated since the mid-1980s,” Jennings said.
The current starting salary for a correctional officer in the state is around $29,000, a number that hasn’t been adjusted over the years for inflation. The proposed plan to restructure the DPS pay schedule would distinguish increased salaries by the level of security at which correctional officers are employed. In that case, close custody prisons would have the highest starting salary, then medium, and minimum custody would have the lowest starting salary.
“All our experienced officers are working in minimum custody and where we really need them is in close custody, so we’re trying to provide some financial incentive to turn that around,” Acree said.
But low retention rates are due to more than just an issue of low pay. Increased numbers of gang-involved inmates and inmates with mental illness add to the stress and dangers of the position.
In 1994, the N.C. General Assembly passed a law that restructured the way inmates serve their sentences.
The law aimed to ensure they served the amount of time originally ordered, limiting reduced sentences, thereby keeping prisons full.
“As a result of that, we’ve seen more violence within the system, we have more gang activity within the system, and we’re dealing with a more difficult offender,” Guice said.
In addition, because of the gaps in the state’s mental health care system — in which some people don’t qualify for Medicaid services but are also not able to afford private mental health care — many people suffering from mental illness end up in prisons.
The governor’s budget proposal addresses this issue by proposing to open beds previously unused in the healthcare wing of Central Prison in Raleigh. Even so, Guice said correctional officers would need to receive new training in dealing with offenders with special needs.
“Pay is just a start. You’ve got to feel comfortable in your job, and you’ve got to feel safe in your job,” he said. “So we’ve got to be able to provide that level of training, that opportunity for advancement.”