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Policy 360: What Works in Prison Reform

Recently, the Charlotte Observer ran a powerful five-part series that revealed shocking practices inside the state’s prison system. The investigation exposed officers running contraband rings and having sex with inmates. It showed officers beating shackled prisoners – even collaborating with gang members to green-light vicious attacks.

The report also alleged that state leaders “have created the very conditions that allow corruption to flourish.”

As a result of that series, the Secretary of the N.C. Department of Public Safety commissioned a study to look specifically at how prisons in other states operate, and to see whether some best practices could be implemented in North Carolina. For the Policy 360 podcast, Kelly Brownell talks with the authors of the study, Caitlin Saunders and Joel Rosch.

Conversation Highlights

The main issues in N.C. regarding staffing and management

Rosch: In North Carolina, salaries for correctional officers have remained relatively stagnant. [Historically] North Carolina has more prisons than most other states, and many of them are located in places where it's hard to hire people.

In the area around Wake County, or the Tri area, in Greensboro, Winston-Salem, or in Charlotte, the job markets there are very tight, and Department of Corrections salaries are not competitive. So, as the staffing levels were challenged, like other states, North Carolina was facing a variety of problems.

[Historically] North Carolina had about 100 prisons, which is a shockingly high number. Today, we're down to 55, which is many more prisons than most states have, and it's very hard managing those institutions.

... We've gone to structured sentencing, and we've invested in something called the Justice Reinvestment Act. Those two things changed the composition of the prison population. There are many fewer misdemeanors, there are many fewer nonviolent criminals in prison. That's good. That's one of the reasons why our state is safer today.

However, that has drastically changed the mix of people in the prisons, making the job of running the prisons a lot harder. ... if you just double the number of people, the number of problems don't double. They increase logarithmically.

... And I think that lies at the root of the problems that we're facing. The changing nature of the population, and at the same time, real staffing problems.

How the study was conducted

Saunders: We looked at the existing literature on prison management, specifically, about correctional officer management and training. We also talked to national organizations, and tried to figure out which states were most similar to North Carolina, which states had faced similar issues, and had recently adapted their practices, and also, which states were known, at the national level, as leaders in these topics.

... Ultimately, we interviewed seven states, to get a sense of, if there was anything consistently across the board that we could point to as best practices in national prison management.

One thing that we confirmed ... was that while there are some very egregious examples [of staff misconduct] that have occurred recently in North Carolina ... issues of staff misconduct, contraband in prisons, those are things that all states were struggling with.

Also, staffing levels seem to be the topic that's on every state's mind. As the economy in the U.S. has improved, and unemployment is low, corrections departments are really struggling to find people to work in the prisons.

Our finding was that nobody has it completely figured out. There's no one state that seemed to be doing it perfectly, but each state kind of had a lot of creative ideas, for ways to get at each of these issues.

Surprising findings

Saunders: The thing that I found most surprising is that there's more to the story than [simply] salary. When it comes to salary, when you look at which states have the highest salaries, and how the vacancy rates compare, the states with the highest salaries don't necessarily have the lowest vacancy rates. It's not always a one to one ratio.

The literature also points out that intrinsic incentives can be a better predictor of turnover, sometimes, than salary.

... if there's a better opportunity, things like the workplace environment and decision-making capability, clear goals and fair policies within the workplace, [those policies] can keep people there for a longer period of time.

And so, salary, combined with professional development opportunities, and staff empowerment, and correctional officer wellness programs, goes a lot farther than just a salary increase across the board as the silver bullet solution.

What should policymakers take from these findings?

Rosch: [Currently] there's no requirement that a manager has to receive training, and until they address that issue, it's going to be very difficult to turn things around.

What's interesting is that [prison administrators'] legislative requests sort of mirrored many of the problems that we found... For instance, they requested more spaces, so they could do management training. They didn't get any of that money. They requested more money for certain kinds of technology, that we found to be effective, and all of those things were zeroed out.

So I think that they have a pretty good idea of what they need to, but those kinds of things are harder. They're cultural changes.

Best practices from other states

Saunders: Pennsylvania had a program, where they had formalized operational feedback committees, and the ideas that staff had - there was a partnership with NYU's BetaGov, and they turned staff ideas into randomized controlled trials.

[Another idea was to build] systems into employee management, to crate an environment where there was ongoing organizational learning as a group. That added to staff cohesion. And those types of measures were the areas where North Carolina could improve the most.


Policy 360

Policy 360 is a biweekly series of audio-only podcasts produced by the Sanford School of Public Policy. This series of wide-ranging policy conversations is hosted by Sanford's dean, Judith Kelley.

Subscribe to the series wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts.