Dear Governor Cooper,
I am writing on behalf of the Board of Directors of NC-CURE, a prisoner advocacy organization, to express our deep concern about the staff shortages in NC state prisons. We believe the critical staff shortages put the incarcerated men and women, as well as prison staff, in our state in grave danger.
As NC-CURE seeks to be the voice of those without a voice in NC prisons, we receive over 100 letters per month from prisoners and their loved ones. In the last few months, we have received a growing number of complaints that we believe are directly related to staff shortages.
Staff shortages in NC prisons are well described in a January 21, 2022 article in the Charlotte Observer. Statewide, 33% of correctional officer positions are unfilled. Nurses are the primary access to medical care in the prison system; alarmingly, 40% of nursing positions are vacant. Absences due to COVID and other illnesses further reduce the number of staff members available in the workforce.
Without adequate custody staff, officers working long hours and overtime can be easily frustrated and fearful. We believe this rising tension has led to the increased number of reports we’re hearing about excessive use of force and restrictive housing. Many prisoners tell us they do not feel safe in an environment of escalating fights among inmates, gang activity, and drug use. Unmet medical and mental health needs threaten the safety of the entire population, inmates and staff included.
To combat staff shortages the state temporarily closed 20 units and some entire prison facilities. Unfortunately, these closures have led to significant overcrowding, custody level conflicts, and lack of adherence to COVID-19 protocols.
We understand that the COVID-19 pandemic is a factor in the current staff shortage and that NCDPS efforts are underway to secure additional prison staff. However, the current conditions in NC prisons are unsafe, imminently dangerous and not consistent with humane treatment of people in NC prisons. It is the state of North Carolina that bears responsibility for the safety and well-being of those incarcerated. We believe that immediate action must be taken to remedy the current staffing shortage.
We ask that you mobilize resources external to the Division of Prisons, such as community law officers, the Highway Patrol, the National Guard and other appropriate state agencies. Medical and mental health professionals from the state or community should be recruited on an emergency basis to assist with provision of these critically important services to the prison population.
Perhaps of greatest impact, prison rolls should be critically reviewed to identify inmates that can be safely released into the community. Release of inmates, especially the older ones, with debilitating diseases to families who welcome them could reduce the need for and expense of providing medical care. Enactment of the Early Parole policy could be used to reduce the prison population to a more manageable level. Expansion of the Extended Limits of Confinement program to include, for example, all nonviolent offenders with 2022 and 2023 release dates and those over the age of 50. Allowing prisoners to self-identify their eligibility for these programs could expedite the process.
Thank you for the opportunity to bring this important subject to your attention.