Panel calls for more officers, better technology to make NC prisons safer ::

Panel calls for more officers, better technology to make NC prisons safer ::

— A day after an officer at Harnett Correctional Institution was assaulted, a state panel studying ways to improve prison safety put forward some recommendations on Wednesday.

The unidentified officer was breaking up a fight among three inmates at the Lillington prison on Tuesday evening when he was hit in the jaw, authorities said. Other correctional officers came to his assistance.

In March, a corrections officer was stabbed by an inmate at the same facility, one of 223 assaults on prison staff statewide through the end of August, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

“Any time there is an assault at all – one is too many. Any time something happens to our staff inside a facility, it is too much for us,” said Tim Moose, chief deputy secretary for the state Division of Adult Corrections and Juvenile Justice. “So, we are looking at everything we can do in a variety of ways to try to approve upon that.”

The state Prison Reform Advisory Board issued a series of recommendations Wednesday for lawmakers to act on, including adding more officers and new personal protection and security technology in buildings.

“[It] sends an alert any time an officer is in a difficult situation,” Moose said of the technology.

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Sen. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, has pushed for reform since five prison workers were killed in two attacks in 2017. An officer was beaten to death at Bertie Correctional Institution, and four workers died in a failed escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Institution.

“It is the most dangerous job in the entire world,” Steinburg said Wednesday.

About 20 percent of jobs in North Carolina prisons are vacant, officials said. State lawmakers have included bigger raises for correctional officers in the past couple of years to help recruit and retain more workers, but Steinburg wants to move them up the state pay scale faster.

“The estimated price tag for that, just that alone, is $200 million,” he said.

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Moose said changes to sentencing laws years ago have made prisons more dangerous.

“It has put the more violent, more difficult individuals in prison for longer periods of time,” he said, adding that assaults are down so far this year when compared with 2018.

Steinburg also has sponsored legislation to remove the Division of Adult Corrections and Juvenile Justice from DPS, saying more attention could be paid to safety and other reforms if prisons were a standalone state agency.

“It was an experiment,” he said of the decision to fold prisons into DPS eight years ago. “It was a cost-cutting experiment in 2011. I don’t think there is any question that it hasn’t worked.”

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