NC shuts 3 prisons to combat staff shortages

Prison cell

RALEIGH — Three minimum security prisons in rural areas of the state have been temporarily shuttered to address staffing shortages, according to a Sept. 24 North Carolina Dept. of Public Safety press release.

“As part of ongoing reform efforts, the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice will temporarily suspend operations at three minimum custody facilities and move correctional officers and other staff to neighboring prisons to address staffing challenges,” the release said.

The three facilities are Hoke Correctional Institution in Raeford; Tyrrell Prison Work Farm in Columbia; and Odom Correctional Institution in Jackson. While operations are suspended, Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee said, “Employees will be temporarily reassigned to help their colleagues at facilities with high vacancy issues.”

State Sen. Bob Steinburg (R-Chowan), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Prison Safety, told NSJ in a statement that he would be seeking more answers on why this action was taken.

“The developments within the Adult Corrections and Juvenile Justice in the last week have invited some serious probing questions, which I will make sure get asked,” Steinburg wrote. “Furthermore, Deputy Secretary Tim Moose has agreed to brief me on the temporary closings of these facilities.”

One of the facilities closed is in Steinburg’s district, in Hoke County, and another of the prisons is close by. He added that leaders at DPS have agreed to answer his questions publicly, saying, “Secretary Moose and senior staff at the Division of Adult Corrections have agreed to appear before the Senate Select Committee on Prison Safety so that other Senators may ask questions. That meeting will be announced as soon as we have a set date.”

The Sept. 30 scheduled meeting for the Senate Select Committee on Prison Safety was canceled, and Steinburg’s office said they were working on rescheduling it but did not have comment on whether it was related to Steinburg’s desire to have Moose answer questions on the closures in front of the committee.

The staff vacancy rate for correctional officers in August, cited in the DPS press release, is around 21%, which DPS says limits their ability to operate all of the facilities across the state at full strength. By consolidating efforts at fewer locations, DPS hopes to fill in the gaps without much disruption. They also said they would attempt to relocate employees in a way that would take into account the distance to their new assignments.

Detailed answers to why these three locations were chosen and how long they are expected to be shuttered are yet to come, but the suspensions will roll out over a period of months, beginning with Hoke Correctional. Each facility will be evaluated six months after its suspension to determine whether it should remain closed or be reopened.

“Prison administration has researched the suspension of operations at select facilities to counter the effect of an increasing employee vacancy rate on facility safety and security,” Moose said in a release. “We will continue to explore all options to aid in reducing vacancy rates and keeping our employees and communities safe.”

Concern over prison safety has increased after several violent incidents at North Carolina correctional institutions in recent years, including the slaying of correctional officer Sgt. Meggan Lee Callahan, who was allegedly killed by a prisoner in 2017 at Bertie Correctional Institution in Windsor.

Steinburg’s Senate Select Committee on Prison Safety was formed this year in response to reports of high vacancies and low morale among correctional officers and how that may be tied to unsafe conditions in North Carolina’s prison facilities.

On Sept. 29, the Associated Press reported that Scott Whitmeyer, a 49-year-old inmate, was stabbed to death the previous night. The inmate was found killed in an inmate dormitory at Columbus Correctional Institution, a medium-security facility near Whiteville, according to the Dept. of Public Safety. The Columbus County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the incident.