Lack of staffing cited as reason for minimum custody unit closure, no outdoor time for inmates
Alexander Correctional Institution, like many employers in the area, is experiencing a significant staff shortage which has effected changes in the unit’s operations and in the daily lives of inmates.
The Division of Prisons “very much wants to provide offenders time outside their cells and outside the building in the recreation yard. However, such privileges could occasionally be curtailed when providing them would potentially interfere with our primary responsibility to provide a safe and secure environment for staff and offenders alike,” said N.C. Department of Public Safety spokesman John Bull.
One example: COVID-19 had caused such significant disruptions to offender privileges such as outdoor recreation time due to pandemic mitigation measures designed to reduce the spread of the virus in the prison system, Bull related. “While we hope COVID-19 will no longer significantly disrupt Prisons operations, the prison system now is contending with a significant staffing shortage statewide.”
Staff vacancies are a concern in corrections departments across the country and have been an issue in North Carolina that long predates the global pandemic. However, the staffing shortage in North Carolina now has reached serious levels and has forced a pause in some offender privileges at Alexander Correctional for safety and security reasons. System-wide, almost 34 percent of the correctional officer positions are vacant. Bull stated that he cannot release the vacancy rates at specific prisons for security reasons.
“As a result of the staffing shortage, the minimum custody unit at Alexander Correctional was closed last August for staffing reasons, to reassign staff from that unit to the main prison and to distribute the 274 minimum-custody offenders to other minimum custody prisons across the state. This was done to reduce the number of offenders at Alexander Correctional being managed by the available staff.
Also, since mid-January, Alexander Correctional has been operating under modified lockdown conditions that limit offender movements and some privileges. Offenders are receiving dayroom time and are allowed to exercise while out in the dayroom in small groups. However, the facility does not have the staff to take them outside. This is unfortunate, and not optimal, but it is necessary to provide the necessary levels of safety and security with the staff the prison has available for duty.
“Like nearly all employers in the current economy, we are trying very hard to fill these vacancies,” Bull said. “Since the implementation of salary increases and a step pay plan for veteran correctional officers in January of 2022, with funding from the budget passed in November, we have seen a consistent increase in correctional officer applications in the first quarter of 2022. I don’t have additional details on the funding, but that can be found in the state budget that was passed. We have also had more than 90 employees come back to work for us as correctional officers since the beginning of the year as well.
“In addition, for the past several months Prisons and Community Corrections have jointly launched a major recruitment campaign that goes beyond job fairs and prison hiring events. We run ads on radio and TV across the state, on online platforms and on billboards across the state to recruit new correctional officers. And we’ve streamlined the hiring process by allowing wardens to make conditional offers of employment to qualified applicants at the time of their interviews.
“The Division of Prisons also is focused on retention of our officers through a campaign called All In—2022, which empowers individual facilities to seek solutions for retaining employees — from family and childcare issues to amenities such as breakroom refrigerators and microwaves,” Bull explained.
“Since the facility went on modified lockdown in January, offenders have continued to have access to the gym and have continued both their prison jobs and to go to program classes,” Bull added.
“I have asked the warden to renew the efforts to find a way to get offenders out-side for fresh air and sunshine,” said Todd Ishee, Commissioner of Prisons.