As the Decades Rolled By, Central Prison Changed Dramatically

Tuesday, January 21, 2020 - 3:35pm

Ground was broken on the imposing stone fortress known as Central Prison in Raleigh 150 years ago as convicts wielded shovels and chipped granite blocks from a nearby quarry to build its 30-foot walls.

It took 14 years to finish the job started on Jan. 6, 1870. Central Prison has been in continuous service since it opened in 1884. The project cost $1.25 million.

Much has changed since those simpler, harsher times.

Central Prison is a far different prison than it was more than a century ago, when offenders did hard labor building highways and railroads, were whipped for rules violations, went without adequate medical care or decent food, guards carried guns and escapees were shot and buried on the spot.

Central Prison is now a complex operation that houses many of the special populations within the prison system: Those with acute medical or mental health needs, many of the most violent offenders who require high levels of security, those sentenced to death, and county jail offenders with special medical, mental health or security needs that the counties cannot provide.

•    Back then, the prison looked like a stone fortress, designed to be an imposing deterrent to crime.

The prison now looks modern and state of the art, thanks to a 1983 remodel and expansion. One wall of the original prison remains. 

•    Back then, the food was terrible and subsistence-level. There were no doctors. 

Now, the food meets 21st-century nutritional standards, and a modern hospital opened in 2011 with operating rooms, a dialysis unit and even a 46-bed long-term care facility.

•    More than a century ago, offenders worked on brutal chain gangs building state roads, or in the prison mattress factory, machine shop or the horse-collar factory.

Central Prison now emphasizes rehabilitation and treatment, having long moved past the “prison-as-punishment” model of incarceration. Offenders no longer work outside the prison, but they do hold prison jobs to help maintain the place and to teach them skills and work ethics.

And many take educational and vocational training classes to learn skills and trades. A variety of self-improvement programs such as anger management, domestic violence, parenting, alcohol and drug treatment, critical thinking and more are offered.

Why? Most of the offenders will be released at some point. If they leave prison better than they arrived, they are less likely to do something that sends them back.

•    For more than a century, the staff consisted primarily of armed, poorly trained guards.

Guards (or matrons in female prisons) is a term that no longer is used. Today, correctional officers are certified professionals who receive constant training in security, de-escalation, situational awareness, use of restraints, crisis intervention, CPR, mental health issues and more to effectively manage offenders and to maintain order. While they have access to firearms, they don’t carry them on the cellblock.

Also falling by the wayside over the decades were the terms “convicts,” “prisoners” and “felons.” The term “inmate” is used by some, but the official descriptor now in use is “offender.”

•    When Central Prison opened, one wing was set aside for those deemed “criminally insane,” who were in effect tucked away and forgotten.

Today, Central Prison is one of the largest mental health facilities in the state with multidisciplinary teams including psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, nurses and behavioral specialists providing mental health care. 

An integral part of the mental health team are correctional officers, who are trained to recognize and understand mental illness. Treatment is structured and aimed to manage symptoms, provide coping skills and improve socialization, while related programs, such as art therapy, encourage alternate forms of expression.

Approximately 19 percent of the 35,000 offenders currently in state prisons receive mental health services, most of which are provided at “outpatient” facilities statewide. 

One aspect of Central Prison has not changed in a century. It is still the home of Death Row, where 143 offenders currently are sentenced to die for their crimes.

The electric chair used until 1936 is now on display at the North Carolina Museum of History. The gas chamber gave way to lethal injection in 1983. The last execution was in 2006.

It takes a large and diverse staff with a variety of skills and training to run a large prison of more than 1,000 high security offenders with diverse safety, dietary, mental health, educational and spiritual needs and requirements.

So, on any given day, passing through the multi-layered security procedures are correctional officers, doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, dentists, chaplains, educators, caseworkers, maintenance workers, records specialists, computer technicians, counselors, therapists and more.

The facility has changed dramatically since those harsh days 150 years ago when “convicts” were forced at gunpoint to build their own prison. It is assuredly still a prison, but it has grown into a complex, multi-faceted 21st century prison.


John Bull