When Phillip Boney became a North Carolina prison officer in 2006, he knew he’d have to deal with dangerous, unethical people.
He just never thought they’d be his co-workers.
At 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, the former teaching assistant said he rarely felt intimidated by the inmates at Lanesboro Correctional Institution, 45 miles southeast of Charlotte. But something else began to trouble him:
Corrupt officers were colluding with inmates to commit crimes.
By 2013, he’d had enough. He wrote four letters addressed to state prison leaders, investigators and Gov. Pat McCrory, detailing some of the wrongdoing and pleading for help.
In his then-anonymous letters, Boney wrote about prison employees who “put the honorable staff members at risk.” Some sold inmates drugs and cellphones, he wrote. Others helped gang members attack prisoners. Worst of all, he alleged, a prison leader promoted corrupt staff members.
Lanesboro, Boney wrote, had the “worst kind of gang in the state … The ‘Dirty Staff Gang.’ ”
A Charlotte Observer investigation found that a hidden world of drugs, sex and gang violence thrives inside the state’s prisons – and that officers who are paid to prevent such corruption are instead fueling it. Prison officers frequently team up with inmates on crimes that endanger staff members, inmates and the public.
The newspaper found that prison employees have undermined the intent of incarceration – to punish inmates, rehabilitate them and separate them from society so that they can no longer harm innocent people.
North Carolina taxpayers, who pay more than $1 billion each year to fund the prisons, unwittingly bankroll the corruption. They pay even more when the state reaches legal settlements with inmates who have been abused or mistreated.
State leaders created the very conditions that allow corruption to flourish, the Observer found.
Lawmakers placed many of the state’s 55 prisons in rural areas where it’s hard to recruit employees. And they have failed to provide correctional officers competitive wages.
Prison officials, meanwhile, hire some employees with troubled pasts, and put new officers on the job with minimal training.
They make it easy for officers to profit illegally – sneaking in drugs, cellphones and weapons. Unlike some states, North Carolina doesn’t frisk officers when they report for duty and has been slow to use technology to find contraband.
The smuggled drugs and phones spur gang violence, allow prisoners to orchestrate crimes outside prison walls and cause many inmates to leave prison as addicted – and dangerous – as when they went in.
State prison leaders say they’re cracking down on corruption.
Most of the state’s 8,000 correctional officers are ethical and hardworking, they say.
But leaders know they have a problem.
“Do I think I have corrupt staff in every prison, in every (maximum-security) prison?” said George Solomon, the state’s recently retired director of prisons. “I would be naive to say I didn’t.”
On Friday, Gov. Roy Cooper also responded to the Observer’s investigation with a statement:
“I’m deeply concerned about violence and contraband in our prisons and troubled that many of the problems spotlighted here weren’t detected sooner. Those who guard prisoners should not be enabling and committing crimes themselves. I’ve asked my new Secretary of Public Safety to take a hard look at these issues and recommend ways to make our prisons safer.”
What the Observer found
To investigate prison corruption, Observer reporters analyzed state data and reviewed thousands of pages of documents. They interviewed or corresponded with more than 65 current and former prison employees, more than 80 inmates, and dozens of prison experts, lawyers and law enforcement officials.
The Observer found:
▪ Since 2012, at least 70 state employees have been criminally charged for offenses inside the prisons. More than 400 others have been fired for on-the-job misconduct. In some cases, when employees resign while under investigation, no charges are filed.
▪ Prison officials have hired officers with histories of crime, violence and unethical behavior, failing to follow the examples of states that more thoroughly vet job applicants.
One correctional officer was fired from his post in Vermont after he pressed a gun to a man’s head so hard that his ear bled. Four months later, North Carolina hired him to work as a prison officer.
▪ Employees smuggle in most of the illicit drugs and cellphones to the state’s maximum-security prisons. In the past five years, more than 50 North Carolina prison employees have been charged with bringing contraband into prisons. Some inmates and experts say it’s easier to find drugs in prison than on the street.
At Polk Correctional Institution, north of Durham, a prison sergeant reportedly provided cellphones to a notorious gang leader. Locked in solitary confinement, the inmate used a phone to orchestrate a murder-for-hire plot against a prosecutor’s father.