RALEIGH, N.C. — About four assaults take place in North Carolina’s prisons every day, according to new data collected by officials working to address violence in the state system.
The effort concentrating on the details of prison violence shows 227 workers and 349 inmates were attacked in the first five months of 2018. The state’s top prison official said that, based on observations and conversations with facility heads, the assaults this year seem roughly in line with recent years.
“It is a dangerous environment,” Prisons Director Kenneth Lassiter said. “Every single assault on staff and an inmate is serious. Every single one.”
The state intensified its focus on getting an accurate portrait of prison violence after four workers were killed during an inmate escape attempt at an Elizabeth City prison in October. A correctional officer was killed at a Bertie County prison six months earlier.
Last week, employees were attacked on consecutive days at Raleigh’s Central Prison, home of the state’s death row. A unit manager was hospitalized with a serious injury after he was jumped by two inmates brandishing a weapon. One of the inmates also was hospitalized. The next day, two correctional officers responding to a dining area disturbance were punched by an inmate.
Lassiter said he didn’t believe the state’s problem finding and keeping correctional officers — frequently forcing remaining guards to work extra shifts — played any role in prison violence. The prison system houses 37,000 inmates and has more than 11,000 correctional officers, according to the Department of Public Safety. More than a quarter of correctional officer positions were vacant last fall at the two prisons where workers were killed.
This year, if the rate of assaults keeps up, about 567 employees will be attacked with fists, blades and other weapons, or with sprays of urine or other substances. That would surpass the number of aggravated assaults in Wilmington in 2016, when the city of 120,000 had 496 assaults, according to FBI crime statistics.
Of the 227 times prison employees were attacked through May 24, the last date of the tally provided to The Associated Press, 58 were referred for medical examination or treatment beyond workplace first aid. Inmates kicked or punched staffers in about 60 percent of the assaults and used weapons in about 1 in 9 cases.
Few state prison systems have tallied the details of actual assaults as North Carolina is doing, said Bryce Peterson, a research associate at the Urban Institute public policy think tank.
Before this year, prison leaders had primarily tracked inmate wrongdoing by infractions, a method that often listed multiple rules violations for each attack. That’s how state prisons recorded 790 inmate infractions relating to staff assaults in the year ending June 2017.
Most incidents of inmates attacking other inmates are never recorded because victims hide them for fear of retribution, said Nancy Wolff, who leads a Rutgers University center that has surveyed prison populations.
Prison administrators decided to collect more specific details on assaults after questions by the AP and others, Lassiter said.
“This is much cleaner, accurate data,” he said.
Although sentencing reforms have cut the number imprisoned in North Carolina by 3,000 since 2011, a much higher proportion now serves time for felonies, Lassiter said.
“We’re dealing with some mean individuals who come to prison today,” he said.
And about 1 out of 6 inmates suffer some form of mental illness, Lassiter said. But guards aren’t told who they are, just as they aren’t told which inmates carry communicable diseases, he said.
“Staff are trained to treat every inmate the same,” Lassiter said.
State prison officials don’t tally how often mentally ill inmates assault others, though administrators at individual lockups know, Lassiter said. Wisconsin’s prison system published data showing nearly half the inmates involved in a physical attack in 2016 suffered a serious mental condition like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
Even innately malicious people serving yearslong sentences are motivated to restrain violent impulses to keep privileges like receiving visits, attending school or watching TV, said Wolff, who has volunteered in prisons for 15 years.
“People want to believe that people inside prison are just predators and they’re waiting for every opportunity to do harm. There are sociopaths inside prison, most definitely. But that’s a very rare number,” she said.
She said high staff turnover and lots of overtime can frazzle inmates and correctional officers alike, leaving guards tired, stressed and short-tempered, intensifying inevitable conflicts.
Lassiter said it’s a myth any suggestion “that our staff are doing something to create these assaults.”
“There’s some fine men and women that work inside of our prisons,” he said.