Senate votes unanimously to OK prison reform bill


By Miles Layton
Chowan Herald

Thursday, July 11, 2019

EDENTON —The state Senate has voted unanimously to pass a bill designed to improve safety and working conditions in North Carolina’s prisons.

The Prison Reform Act, or Senate Bill 579, directs the Legislature’s Program Evaluation Division to study alternative management structures for the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice, which now falls under the jurisdiction of the N.C. Department of Public Safety. One option involves creating two separate agencies that would still fall under DPS; another splits the division off into two new state departments.

The bill, which includes other provisions, is the result of work by the Senate Select Committee on Prison Safety chaired by state Sen. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, who also was a bill co-sponsor. The committee was formed as part of the state’s continuing response to the slayings of five correctional employees at prisons in Bertie and Pasquotank counties in 2017.

Steinburg hailed the bill’s passage in the Senate.

“There are thousands of hardworking correctional officers throughout North Carolina who 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,” he said. “This is an important next step moving in that direction.”

Steinburg, a former House member, expressed optimism about the bill’s chances passing 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,” he said.

Prison officials have acknowledged that inadequate staffing and security flaws contributed to the deaths of a prison sergeant at Bertie Correctional Institution in April 2017 and four prison workers during a failed escape attempt by inmates at Pasquotank Correctional Institution in October 2017.

Steinburg said the names of the deceased correctional staff — Meggan Callahan, Justin Smith, Veronica Darden, Wendy Shannon and Geoffrey Howe — “were very much on my mind while the Senate voted on this bill.”

Currently more than 36,500 inmates are housed at 55 state prisons in North Carolina. The state prison system has a budget of approximately $1.2 billion and more than 17,000 employees. More than 70 percent of DPS’ budget is spent on the prison system — an arrangement that prompted lawmakers to consider making it a separate department.

Corrections and juvenile justice were put under DPS in 2011, in a cost-saving move by then-Gov. Bev Perdue, Steinburg said in a previous interview. He claims that’s made the department too big and too difficult to manage. He believes separating corrections and juvenile justice into separate departments would improve their operations and accountability.

“Obviously, this experiment from 2011 has not been working,” Steinburg said.

He added that North Carolina is one of only four states that don’t have corrections as a separate department.

Steinburg has also said that if the legislation ultimately becomes law, he hopes the state will conduct a national search and bring in leaders for corrections and juvenile justice without ties to current prison officials.

Under the bill’s recommendations, the Program Evaluation Division is required to submit its recommendations to both the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee and 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’s a process,” Steinburg said.

Co-sponsors of the legislation include Sens. Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico, and Floyd McKissick, D-Durham.

Daily Advance Staff Writer Jon Hawley contributed to this report.