Could a Prison Break Happen in Raleigh?

Central Prison in Raleigh

Sweat and Matt, who lived in adjacent cells at the Clinton Correctional Facility, used power tools to cut through steel walls and pipes, crawling through giant tunnels until they reached an opening through a manhole cover in the street. They made their way on foot to the Canadian border. Their ride, a prison employee named Joyce Mitchell, failed to show.

The manhunt mesmerized the nation, and it got us thinking: Could there be a Raleigh prison break? We headed to Raleigh’s Central Prison to ask the question.

It’s possible but unlikely.

“We’re fortunate we don’t have a prison of that design in our system where that type of escape could happen—going through tunnels and all that,” says Kenneth Lassiter, deputy director of prisons operations for North Carolina’s Department of Public Safety. “We did some security measures to address drainage issues around our facilities, and we think that security is doing well.”

That’s not to say Central Prison—or any other maximum-security prison nationwide—can’t be compromised.

Ironically, the employees charged with keeping order have the potential to create an opportunity for a breach.

In the Matt/Sweat escapes, Mitchell, a prison employee who worked in the tailor shop, smuggled in the lights and power tools Matt and Sweat needed to escape. She was believed to have had a romantic relationship with one or both inmates.

In July, Mitchell pleaded guilty to charges of promoting prison contraband and criminal facilitation. She was sentenced at the end of September, facing up to seven years in prison through a plea deal.

“IT’S US AGAINST THEM”

Josh Panter, 40, a correctional captain at Central Prison, says officers have to be vigilant about not forming relationships with inmates.

“We all understand fairly well that there’s an obligation to report it,” he says. “I would say that my relationship with an inmate is on one level protectional. He’s a human being, a grown man. I treat him with that respect. But to effectively manage an inmate population, it’s us against them.

“And so when you look at it in that light, you don’t mix the two,” he continues. “I think most staff take the mindset that a compromised staff member is basically a pathway for another staff member to get injured, manipulated or to get comprised themselves.”

“WE WON’T TOLERATE THAT”

Most prisons rotate staff frequently and invest in training to hold staff accountable to each other. Still, employees form relationships with inmates in prisons all over the country, and Raleigh is no exception.

Deputy talking to prisoner
Deputy Director Kenneth Lassiter speaks to an inmate.

“A lot of times I think the relationships that happen are not the glorified romantic relationships that you see on TV for example,” says Panter. “They’re small things. A young officer makes a stupid mistake, does something, and the inmate basically manipulates and twists it all around and says, ‘If you don’t do this for me, I’ll do this.’

“The inmates are smart enough to target those people, especially those with weaker wills, the meeker officers,” he continues. “When they attack, they have their plan. It’s not just one inmate against one officer. It’s coordinated; they might have help.”

It’s an issue that concerns Lassiter.

“We’re constantly training our staff and re-emphasizing the importance of being pros and to identify what the boundaries are. If you cross the boundaries, we won’t tolerate that. We don’t tolerate any undue familiarity.

“Most of our cases happen early on in someone’s career,” he continues. “Most of the time they’re probationary status employees. Staff shortage leads to some of that—lack of training and someone to look over your back and help you walk through.”

JUST A HANDFUL OF ESCAPES EACH YEAR

Actually, North Carolina does a much better job containing its prisoners than it did 40 years ago.

In 1970, there were more than 9,500 prisoners in the system; that year more than 1,300 escaped. In 2012, there were more than 38,000 prisoners—four times as many—but just 8 escaped. All of those in recent memory were inmates from minimum- or medium-security.

Combining prisons and tightening security are responsible for the sharp decrease in prison escapes as well as fast recapture rates. These days, escapees are caught within 36 to 48 hours, says Lassiter.

“Before, they (prisons) were more work release sites and camps, beside DOT stations that were made for building the highways,” says Lassiter. “The infrastructure of North Carolina was built with inmates. It was made for inmates to transit in and out, so they had a better chance of leaving.”

BACK TO SOCIETY

Most inmates will get out—the legal way. Lassiter estimates 93 percent of inmates in the state will eventually return to society.

“You would not believe the volume of people that have been incarcerated and return back to society. The only reason you know they’ve been incarcerated is, one, they have to check the felony box on an application or they tell you. They’re like you and me. They breathe the same air; they walk the same walk and talk the same talk. They made a mistake, came to prison, did what they were supposed to do and now they’re productive citizens.”

It’s Lassiter’s job to make sure they’re ready. The state now mandates a 90-day post-release supervision period for all recently released inmates. It’s proved valuable.

“If you’ve done 15 to 20 years on a sentence and you’re getting out, it’s a different world. You paid your debt to society and you’re almost at the gate, but we need to make sure we transition you back, and we’re not setting you up to come back.”

Work release is part of that transition as is job training and transitional housing.

“IF WE CAN SHOW HOPE”

Matt and Sweat were convicted murderers, their crimes brutal. They never would have been paroled. Many in Central Prison are in the same situation.

No matter.

“We always think everyone is plotting to escape,” says Lassiter. “There’s someone probably now sitting in one of our cells trying to figure out how he or she can get out of our prisons.”

But regimented counts and cell searches are deterrents as are a variety of programs—behavioral and cognitive therapy, assessments for illness, anger management and other innovative programs.

“All the inmate wants is hope,” says Lassiter. “If we can show hope—even if you have a life sentence—there’s hope you can be a productive inmate inside a prison. You aren’t ever going to get out, but you can have an active, productive life inside a prison.”

Lassiter says escapes can and do occur but are rare. Most happen on work release, but hundreds leave the prison for work every day without incident.

“I’ll knock on wood; our security measures are in place at our major facilities to prevent those major escapes but we’re still dealing with humans,” he says. “We’re dealing with equipment that can fail so every day we’re re-evaluating our procedures to be sure we’re running a safe and secure prison.”

WEARING THE UNIFORM

Perhaps the obvious question is: Why would anyone want to work at Central Prison? Death row is housed here, not to mention restrictive housing, also known as Unit
Prison handcuffs1, the latter for inmates who are at constant risk of hurting themselves or staff.

The assault rate at Central Prison against corrections officers is roughly two per day, says Lassiter (although a 2013 lawsuit filed by eight inmates alleges abuse).

Assault can mean anything from spitting to stabbing.

Inmates have assaulted Panter numerous times during his 15-year career; he was once stabbed in the hand while serving lunch trays.

“When I started to put the tray onto the food passage door, I saw the knife coming,” he says. “It was a toothbrush with a rusted blade that was melted onto the handle. When he stabbed at me the first time, it hit the tray. As I was moving to the side, that’s when he cut me in the hand.

“At the time, I think I was more angry than anything else,” he continues. “It made an impression on me as a young officer, how employees you didn’t know here would find out about it and ask if you were okay.”

Another time Panter was “gassed” when an inmate threw a cup of urine and blood in his face. The inmate was HIV-positive, and Panter underwent a preventive medication regimen for several months. Both incidents occurred in Unit 1.

“That’s the hardest unit to work in,” Panter says.

Lassiter adds: “You would be amazed at the individuals who wear those uniforms, the disrespect they take, and then they come back and bounce back and be professional,” says Lassiter. “The sad part is that it (ranks) the number one highest profession of suicides of any profession.”

And the pay is low. The average annual salary of a N.C. corrections officer in 2012 was $32,150, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In his March State of the State address, Gov. Pat McCrory mentioned updating the payscale of corrections officers, which hasn’t been done in more than 30 years. The proposed changes would include a tiered scale—higher pay for those working in maximum-security prisons.

“It would go a long way with helping with a variety of things,” says Central Prison Warden Carlton Joyner. “One of the big issues for our people is pay.

“You’ve got people who work here—with what we call the worst in the state of North Carolina,” he continues. “And then you’ve got individuals that work in minimum custody at Wake Correctional Center, and they make pretty much the same thing. Setting that structure will give us a better opportunity to maintain people here and get more seasoned people.”

WHY STAY?

Panter doesn’t guard inmates anymore; he works as a liaison between the Attorney General’s office and the prison. He feels his work is a form of public service.

“My parents gave me the impression or put the seed in my head that you have to earn your place in society,” says Panter, who lives with his wife in Harnett County. “You earn a living for yourself, and you take care of your family, but at the same time you have to do something to kind of give back in order to make things the way you want them to be.”

Lassiter adds: “There are some good people in this business. Nothing about what we do is glamorous. We don’t make a lot of money. But it’s rewarding. Because at the end of the day, you’re doing something to make the community you live in a safe community.”

(At press time, McCrory’s $21 billion budget for the 2015-2017 biennial year had yet to be approved. The state is operating under a temporary spending order until the budget is finalized.)

Caught

Most escapes occur at the minimum- and medium-security level, typically an inmate on work release who makes a run for it.

The consequences: Inmates are charged with escape and go before a judge and/or jury. If found guilty, time is added to their sentence.

“They may also face charges for any other crimes they may have committed, if they stole a car or broke into a house,” says Keith Acree, communications officer for North Carolina’s Department of Public Safety.

Why: Most escapees are within five years of finishing their sentences. Why run?

Lassiter says: “They don’t make rational decisions. They’re so close to the gate, meaning they’re so close to getting out; they miss the pleasures of home, and they just react.”

Last escape from Central Prison: 1994 by way of a trash compactor.

 

Prison cafeteria

Central prison by the numbers

Capacity: 752 male inmates

Security: Maximum

Location: 1300 Western Blvd.

Opened: 1884

Staff: 1,310
Jobs: 260 (inmate jobs within prison)

What surprised us

When photographer Jennifer Robertson and I arrived at Central Prison to shoot photos for Raleigh Magazine, we were offered a tour, spending more than two hours at the prison, touring everything from Death Row to the hospital, which treats male inmates statewide. We were surprised at the access we were given as well as the openness in answering our questions.

Central Prison is its own mini-city, but unlike any we’ve ever known:

• It was cold (temperature-wise) and very clean. We felt we walked for miles through wide tunnels and corridors that connected each section of the prison.

• The men and women working at the prison greeted each other warmly; the deputy director and warden talked openly with inmates as well.

• The bluntness of the industrial grade steel pens in Unit 1’s recreation area was shocking, a sharp contrast to the regular recreation areas for the general population, which included basketball, billiards and foosball.

• As women, we dressed carefully to tour an all-male maximum-security prison. But we were never “cat-called.” Not once.

-Photography by Jennifer Robertson

Christa Gala

Christa Gala worked for 16 years as a newspaper columnist and freelance writer across digital and print platforms before joining Raleigh Magazine. Gala is in her fifth semester teaching Writing and Reporting at UNC-Chapel Hill’s renowned School of Media and Journalism.
Christa Gala

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Christa Gala worked for 16 years as a newspaper columnist and freelance writer across digital and print platforms before joining Raleigh Magazine. Gala is in her fifth semester teaching Writing and Reporting at UNC-Chapel Hill’s renowned School of Media and Journalism.