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Weaker Job Screening Could Make North Carolina Prisons More Dangerous

by David M. Reutter

In an effort to reduce its 18 percent guard vacancy rate, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS) has eliminated the requirement that all applicants go through psychological testing.

“We are trying to make it easier for the applicants to get through the hiring process,” said Tracy Little, deputy secretary for prisons. She said the move will not only allow the DPS to hire guards more quickly, it will save about $1 million a year.

The policy change comes after two incidents that resulted in the deaths of five guards. The first occurred in April 2017 at the Bertie Correctional Institution while the facility was understaffed. A prisoner attacked and killed Sgt. Meghan Callahan.

Then in October 2017, four prisoners working in the sewing plant at the understaffed Pasquotank Correctional Institution tried to escape. They killed four prison employees before being caught inside the perimeter fence. [See: PLN, Sept. 2018, p.52].

Those incidents came after the DPS instituted a policy of requiring applicants to submit to psychological testing before being hired. In 2015, the DPS awarded FMRT Group a contract to conduct psychological and medical screening of prison guard applicants. That contract expired in April 2019. According to FMRT chief executive Elizabeth Morris, the company interviewed about 10,000 applicants. Of those, 11 percent were found psychologically unsuitable for prison work and another seven percent had medical issues. FMRT identified applicants with gang ties, financial problems and histories of drug abuse, Morris said.

The new policy will result in about 250 applicants a year undergoing face-to-face psychological interviews – a small fraction of those who apply.

“Safety and security are our top priority and the screening process will enable us to maintain our standard of recruiting and selecting high-quality applicants,” Little said.

This may signal a return to problems of the past. A prisoner at the Lanesboro Correctional Institution was killed during a gang fight in September 2012. A unit manager was seen on video stretching his arms above his head and covering his mouth; investigators and a lawsuit claim he was signaling to the killer to keep his mouth shut. [See: PLN, April 2018, p.14].

A 2014 incident involving prisoner Kelvin Melton, the leader of the United Blood Nation gang, was blamed on corrupt guards trafficking in cell phones. Other prisoners said guards had provided Melton with phones that he used to orchestrate an unsuccessful plot to kill a prosecutor’s father. [See: PLN, April 2018, p.14; Dec. 2014, p.56].

“Those are the people they were hiring,” said John Schwede, a retired psychologist. “Considering what’s at stake, any screening – anything that has the chance of screening out even a few really bad apples – is worthwhile.”

Nonetheless, the DPS moved forward and awarded a new contract under its revised policy to Cary Psychology. FMRT Group, which was disqualified from bidding after sending information on prison hiring standards to state lawmakers, has protested that award.

“This process will lead to injuries and harm to both correctional officers and inmates,” Morris predicted. 


Source: Charlotte Observer

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