State senate passes Prison Reform Act

House must OK bill before it heads to Cooper


Bob Steinburg


Staff writer

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

RALEIGH — NC Senate unanimously passed the Prison Reform Act last week to improve safety and working conditions within the state's corrections system.

The bipartisan bill, sponsored by Senators Bob Steinburg (R-Chowan), Norman Sanderson (R-Pamlico) and Floyd McKissick (D-Durham) was the result of recommendations from the Senate Select Committee on Prison Safety, which was chaired by Steinburg.

The committee was formed as part of the state's continued response to the slayings of five correctional employees at prisons in Bertie and Pasquotank counties in 2017. In the aftermath of the attacks, Steinburg pledged to tackle the prison system's “secret society” that he said has resisted reform and transparency.

The committee has met regularly since February to discuss ways to make prisons in North Carolina safer.

“The committee met regularly for months and had significant, meaningful discussions about the best way to improve safety in our prisons,” Steinburg said. “There are thousands of hardworking correctional officers throughout North Carolina that risk their lives every day simply by going to work and we owe it to them to ensure that work environment is as safe as possible. This is an important next step moving in that direction.”

Steinburg is optimistic about the bill's chances in the House.

“Given that I have yet to hear of any major pushback from my former House colleagues, I am cautiously optimistic about the bill’s passage in the House,” he said. “Hard questions are to be expected from any member worth their salt, and I will be ready to answer them.”

Previous reports noted that inadequate staffing and major security flaws contributed to the deaths of Sgt. Meggan Callahan at a Bertie Correctional Institution in April 2017 and four prison workers who were fatally wounded during escape attempt by inmates armed with scissors and hammers in October 2017 at Pasquotank Correctional Institution.

“As we voted on this bill on July 1, I cannot say that I felt a sense of satisfaction or vindication, rather my relief in that we had taken the first serious step in what is going to be a long series of steps,” Steinburg said. “In addition, the names Megan Callahan, Justin Smith, Veronica Darden, Wendy Shannon and Geoffrey Howe were very much on my mind while the Senate voted on this bill.”

There are 55 state prisons that house more than 36,500 inmates. The state prison system has a budget of approximately $1.2 billion and more than 17,000 employees. More than 70 percent of the state's Department of Public Safety's budget is spent on the prison system — an arrangement that prompted lawmakers to consider whether the prison system should become a separate department within the state government.

The bill directs the Program Evaluation Division (PED) to study alternative management structures for The Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice. The Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice is currently one division under the purview of the Department of Public Safety (DPS).

Under the bill, PED will look at a number of different management structure options including creating two separate agencies that would still be under DPS or splitting it into two new principal state departments. 

Steinburg said there are two things about this bill that need to be understood.

“First, that separating out the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Correction from the Department of Public Safety (DPS) is a primary step,” he said. “Second, it acknowledges the importance of accurately handling the process of separating out these departments as an essential step to ensuring prison safety.”

The bill requires PED to submit its findings and recommendations to the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee and to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety no later than May 1, 2020.

“As I have stated publicly, many times, there is no silver bullet for fixing these issues nor can they be solved through one bill alone, it is a process,” Steinburg said.  

Steinburg said he is most pleased about how the bill addresses what management structures might work best within the prison system.

“The best parts about this bill is that they are looking at alternative management structures and in a manner to determine which of those structures would work best,” he said. “Further, section three sets a clear deadline for the PED to report back by, so that a prolonged period of time does not occur. The purpose of this deadline is to produce a bill which will provide clearly specified parameters that will be ready for presentation by the short session.”

When Steinburg coined the term “secret society” to describe the prison system's leadership style, the phrase rocked the state. He said the bill's intent is to spur accountability and transparency.

“With respect to the 'alleged' secret society, the last two sections of the bill are intended to result in greater accountability by virtue of the fact that the Governor would appoint the presumed cabinet level secretary, but the Senate would have to confirm said nominee,” he said. “By separating out the departments and having the theoretical Secretaries of Juvenile Justice and Corrections concentrate on area of responsibility, this will reduce problems by increasing accountability through greater transparency across the entire system.”

Staff writer Miles Layton can be reached at mlayton@ncweeklies.com