A five-part series in the Charlotte Observer reveals the corruption and abuse that remains disturbingly commonplace in North Carolina’s state prisons. Reporters Ames Alexander and Gavin Off spent two years reporting on officers who smuggled cell phones and drugs into prisons, assaulted prisoners and perhaps even colluded with inmates on a homicide.
Their series “Wrong Side of the Bars” shows that North Carolina does not adequately train, pay, or screen their correctional officers, nor does it provide the necessary recourse for prisoners who have been criminally mistreated. Host Frank Stasio talks about the series with journalists Ames Alexander and Gavin Off.
Ames on how the reporting team got its information:
Well it was a lot of shoe-leather reporting and source work and old fashioned document work. Gavin and Elizabeth Leland and I corresponded with or interviewed more than 80 inmates, more than 65 officers. We combed through thousands of pages of documents, including the letters that are issued to prison employees when they’re fired.
Gavin on how compliant prison officials were with their investigation:
We asked a lot of information from the state. And over the course of two years, countless emails. But they did delay, or flat-out refuse, a number of really important records that we thought were public For instance, it took two years for us to get data on uses of force by officers on inmates, and it took two years for us to get data on how much contraband was found in the prison. And even then the data was, we found, severely flawed.
Once we ended up getting their contraband data, we found that it was so severely inaccurate that we couldn’t use it. And here’s an example: In 2011, the state reported three weapons found at Alexander Correctional Institution, which is in Taylorsville. It’s a maximum security prison. Meanwhile, when you look at reports from the Alexander County Sheriff’s Office, they say that more than 60 weapons were found that year.
Gavin on the scope of the problem:
North Carolina has 55 prisons. And it has a handful of close-custody prisons – the maximum security prisons. But what we found is there is corruption...Correctional officers bringing in contraband – bringing in cigarettes and drugs and cell phones – and officers having sex with inmates at all facilities. It can be the minimum security facilities or the worst of the worst: the maximum security ones.
It’s amazing how much money inmates, and current and former correctional officers, are saying is flowing through the prisons. A cell phone, for instance. You can buy a cheap one at Wal-Mart, a flip phone, for $15 or $20 and sell it in prison for between $300 and $500. You can bring in a pound of marijuana and once it’s divvied up and sold to inmates it can go for $9,000. It’s its own economy, it seems.
Gavin on an example of abuse by prison guards:
This was in Sampson County Correctional Institution. Twenty-five inmates filed a lawsuit that alleges that they were working on a road crew, and two officers on that road crew would essentially torture them with this extreme hot sauce, this high grade hot sauce. They would one, make the inmates ingest it. And even scarier, they would make the inmates put it on the genitals of other inmates. In the lawsuit it said this would literally blister the skin. And officers would use surgical gloves when they handled it. Yet they were making the inmates take it themselves.
Ames on why upstanding officers don’t come forward to report:
A lot of them are afraid of losing their jobs is the chief thing. That said, there have been some brave officers who have taken steps to alert their superiors about what’s going on. One of them we wrote about in our series – a guy named Phillip Boney. And he got so fed up with the corruption at Lanesboro that he began writing a series of letters to prison leaders, to Governor McCrory, to the SBI, letting them know about the corruption he witnessed...He was writing the letters anonymously because he feared for his job. So he didn’t get any response.
Ames on how prisons are set up for failure:
The prisons pay an average of $35,000 a year to officers in maximum security prisons. This is dangerous work, and so it’s really hard to attract really well qualified people. Meanwhile, the prison system doesn’t take steps that many other states do to vet prospective prison officers. And once they hire people, they make it fairly easy for prison employees to smuggle in contraband. They rarely bring in drug-sniffing dogs, for instance. They rarely make officers turn their pockets out when they report to work each day. So it’s a combination of things that have sort of created this atmosphere where corruption can thrive...At prisons statewide there’s a 16 percent vacancy rate among prison officers. At Bertie Correctional, where Sgt. Meggan Callahan was killed, there was a 20 percent vacancy rate. So that creates problems too.