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Public Safety Secretary Speaks to Legislative Committee About Prison Reform Efforts, Shares National Institute of Corrections Report Independent Group Conducted Thorough Safety Review of Three Correction Enterprises Plant Operations

RALEIGH

Public Safety Secretary Erik A. Hooks provided an update on prison reform efforts to members of the Justice and Public Safety Oversight Committee today in Raleigh, including sharing the results of a new independent report on prison industry operations. He talked about the department’s ongoing efforts to improve safety and security within the state’s prisons following two tragedies that resulted in the deaths of five prison employees in 2017.

“We’re working to do whatever is needed to improve the safety and security of North Carolina’s prisons, reduce their inherent dangers and enhance the working environment for our criminal justice professionals who serve in our facilities,” Secretary Hooks stated. “We owe it to the public and to our employees to keep state prisons secure, and we owe it to our fallen employees and their families to do all we can to prevent a similar tragedy from ever happening again.”

As part of that effort, Secretary Hooks in October asked the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) to conduct an independent and comprehensive review of the safety and security operations at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution (PCI) Sewing Plant, as well two other prison industry operations. He announced today he has received the report. Secretary Hooks and Judge Reuben Young, acting chief deputy secretary for the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice, along with other senior staff have started thoroughly reviewing the NIC recommendations outlined in the 78-page document.

The NIC panel of experts focused its review on the following categories included in the report: Departmental Policies; Staffing; Collaboration Between the Division of Prisons and Correction Enterprises; Staff Personal Safety Equipment; Staff Training; Inmate Work Assignment; and Security Auditing and Inspections. An initial review of the report shows the department has already completed many of the recommendations made by the NIC reviewers and with many other recommended actions in progress. Updated prison safety action steps and other important information on prison reform in North Carolina – including the NIC report – can be found online at https://www.ncdps.gov/prison-reform.

“We appreciate the very in-depth review and the comprehensive list of observations and recommendations provided in the NIC report,” Secretary Hooks said. “There is still much work to be done to make our prisons safer, in addition to the dozens of actions already completed or underway, and we welcome continued help from NIC.”

Secretary Hooks told committee members that he is especially troubled by some findings in the NIC report about staffing, policy guidance, tool control, effective communication and complacency and has directed immediate action to address these problems. Any observations or recommendations involving even a potential risk of harm or safety have already been corrected.

In addition to sharing the NIC report, Secretary Hooks and other members of DPS leadership detailed for the legislative committee steps taken to improve prison safety, as well as answered questions about those efforts. Prison safety reforms already completed or in progress include: creation of a new Security Accountability Unit; revision of the Offender Disciplinary Procedures, holding inmates more accountable for rules violations; enhancement of the Prisons entry/exit policy making it mandatory for persons entering most prisons to undergo a pat/frisk search; and a request for NIC to review and revalidate inmate classification protocols. In addition to the recommendations made in the NIC report, DPS is guided by a Governor’s Crime Commission study of best practices in state prisons from across the country released in December.

“Prisons are dangerous places and the problems within them did not happen overnight. It will take a concerted effort by our department and this body to make our prisons safer,” Secretary Hooks told legislators.

During his remarks, Secretary Hooks said the policy and lawmaking decisions aimed at managing the growing inmate population and reducing the number of offenders with misdemeanor and probation violations in North Carolina prisons resulted in a higher percentage of violent offenders in the prison system. From 1997 to 2017, the percentage of those convicted of the most serious felonies – Class A through Class E – grew from 38 percent to 68 percent of the prison population. Also, the number of inmates diagnosed with, and requiring treatment for mental illness had increased by 65 percent in the last 10 years.

Secretary Hooks also shared how deeply the 2017 tragedies at Bertie Correctional Institution and at Pasquotank Correctional Institution have affected the department and its employees. Sgt. Meggan Callahan was assaulted and died from her injuries following an inmate’s attack April 26, 2017, at Bertie Correctional Institution. Then on Oct. 12, officers Justin Smith and Wendy Shannon, Correction Enterprises’ supervisor Veronica Darden and maintenance employee Geoffrey Howe died as a result of a failed escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Institution.

“There are no words to adequately express the grief experienced by the families, friends and co-workers of these fallen heroes. Beyond our grief, we have seen the passion and professionalism our people have, which further fuels our resolve to bring about substantive change to make our prisons safer.”

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