I've Been Incarcerated For 22 Years — And I've Never Seen Prisons This Out Of Control

"Prison violence should concern everyone, because most incarcerated people reenter society."
The Nash Correctional Institution in Nashville, North Carolina.
The Nash Correctional Institution in Nashville, North Carolina.
Courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Adult Correction

When the wooden cane smacked the prisoner’s head, its curved end snapped off and slid 20 feet to my prison-issued sneakers. It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and I was writing a poem about my friend’s recent bachelor party in prison when it happened. I looked up and saw blood streaming down the victim’s face as he latched on to the cane in desperation.

Prisoners peeked out of their cell windows. After a tense two-minute standoff, two prisoners stepped in to break up the fight. One locked the assailant in a shared bathroom. The other accompanied the bleeding victim to the front of the block and banged on a Plexiglas window, trying to get the attention of one of the few correctional officers working the morning shift.

Like all prisons in North Carolina, Nash Correctional Institution — the medium-custody men’s prison where I’m housed — is short-staffed most days. This means that our safety is always in jeopardy. I’ve been incarcerated long enough to know that this isn’t how prison should be.

In 2002, I was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole. Although I’ve never been cited for violence while incarcerated, I’m as familiar with human brutality as a shellshocked combat veteran. Until recently, I had never considered understaffing a contributor to violence and recidivism. I do now.

When Derek Chauvin, the disgraced former police officer convicted in the 2020 killing of George Floyd, was stabbed 22 times in a federal prison last year, staffing was found to be an issue at the facility. The same was true at the correctional institutions where mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger was killed in 2018 and accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein died by suicide a year later. Such polarizing cases raised public concern, but only we — the incarcerated — know what it’s like to live in fear, not knowing whether there will be enough correctional officers on staff to stop someone from bashing in your head with a wooden cane.

Nash is just one institution, but it illustrates how this nationwide understaffing nightmare has gotten out of control.

Since 2017, every state in the U.S. has reported prison staff shortages. On the high end, there are Georgia, Mississippi and Maine with an average vacancy rate of 50%.

States have responded to understaffing differently. One facility in Wisconsin instituted an indefinite lockdown, until prisoners sued. Before Florida raised wages for correctional officers, Gov. Ron DeSantis activated the state’s National Guard. Colorado reassigned teachers and case managers already employed by its prisons to fill in as guards. Despite these efforts, staffing shortages continue in all states.

In the mid-’90s, Nash was built to house 600 men in single cells. But in 2009, the North Carolina Department of Adult Correction, or NCDAC, closed seven of the state’s 79 prisons in an effort to save $22 million. I was one of about 350 prisoners transferred to Nash in early 2010, increasing the prison’s population by nearly 60%. This led to significant overcrowding in every cellblock.

At the time, a spokesperson for the NCDAC said that officials moved us to Nash because of the prison’s 7,900-square-foot cellblocks, describing them as “big, open dayrooms” and us as “a little spoiled” because of them. But when assessing the size of our cellblocks, officials didn’t subtract unlivable space, like communal areas or the officer’s station. And with 120 men using one microwave, two TVs, one hot water pot, four phones, four showers and four bathrooms, we certainly didn’t feel “spoiled.”

Luckily, the overcrowding didn’t last. The 350 additional bunks were removed in 2013, leaving a manageable population size — and the 32 correctional officers who had been hired to manage the initial overcrowding.

But a decade later, North Carolina was suffering from severe understaffing, which forced the prison’s population to balloon again. Between 2020 and 2023, the vacancy rate of correctional officers in North Carolina spiked from 15% to 42%. Thirty-one of the state’s prisons were forced to close entire housing units because they had insufficient staff to operate them.

Across the state, 6,200 prison beds were eliminated because of understaffing. And according to what I’ve seen, by 2023, hundreds of these prisoners were transferred to Nash.

New arrivals to Nash described how correctional institutions across North Carolina housed men inside uninhabitable gymnasiums — like at Scotland Correctional, which was so packed that people on suicide watch reportedly lived in 5-by-5-foot holding cages unfit for housing. An email from an anonymous corrections employee at Scotland mentioned how this had created “a situation where the offenders — who FAR outnumber us — are becoming increasingly irate, and staff are suffering burnout.”

But the negative effects of understaffing only get worse. Low staffing in prisons often forces essential services to be canceled, like rehabilitative programs, higher education classes, recreation time and therapy. A shortage of mental health professionals may have contributed to a rise in suicides among North Carolina prisoners in recent years. Behavioral management classes that teach us skills like communication and parenting only have room for about 12 students, excluding the majority. Jobs are few and far between, leaving the unassigned in communal cages with only a TV or prison-issued tablet to keep them busy. This type of idleness can lead to violence.

I can’t blame the crisis of understaffing on prison workers, administrators or even the secretary of the NCDAC. They are forced to make the best of insufficient ranks. Incarcerated people notice when officers are called in on their off days or stay late, sacrificing rest and family time to cover for vacancies. They work when ill. Many perform duties outside of their job description. And they are first responders to most emergencies. Maintaining order in prisons is a hard job, and its difficulty is magnified by understaffing. I don’t consider this an “us against them” issue — understaffing is detrimental for people on both sides of the wall. If given a choice, I think correctional personnel would avoid overcrowding to remedy understaffing in prisons because it worsens conditions for everyone, not just the imprisoned.

North Carolina’s governor and legislature are the only entities that can eliminate understaffing in state prisons.

Gov. Roy Cooper can grant clemency to older prisoners who pose no threat to society. He can also grant conditional release to those who have served over 20 years — in other words, those who have aged out of crime. It’s not an unreasonable ask, and he holds the sole power to do it.

In 2021, Cooper agreed to release 3,500 prisoners following a settlement with advocacy groups who sued about overcrowding during the COVID-19 pandemic. But we shouldn’t have to file lawsuits to compel a commonsense mass release to address the understaffing epidemic.

Additionally, North Carolina’s conservative-led legislature should consider returning to a system of parole that allows incarcerated people to earn their way out of prison. Our current mandatory minimum sentencing scheme obstructs rehabilitation by removing incentives, such as early release, that help compel broken people to seek paths of repair. Only North Carolina’s legislature can create meaningful change in this way, but they have not overcome their partisan differences to convert state prisons into institutions of change from the dungeons of despair that most are now.

In 2020, I co-authored the Prison Resources Repurposing Act with Timothy Johnson, another incarcerated person. If passed, the PRRA would make parole possible to some who are serving life without parole after the completion of rigorous educational, vocational and behavioral requirements over a 20-year period. While the PRRA would not open the proverbial floodgates to release thousands of lifers, it would show mercy to a deserving few who are willing to earn a second chance through hard work.

The PRRA hasn’t passed yet, because of a lack of conservative support in the North Carolina legislature. In fact, no criminal sentencing reform laws have been taken seriously in North Carolina for three decades, unless they ultimately oppressed incarcerated people more.

As a result, in 2018, the state paid correctional officers $45 million for working overtime, while its prisons remain dangerously understaffed and overcrowded.

What if lawmakers could have invested that $45 million into prison programming, like higher education, drug treatment or anger management? Not only would prisons be safer, but society would be too, because formerly incarcerated people would be set free with the tools needed to live prosperous lives.

Prison violence should concern everyone, because most incarcerated people reenter society. How they are treated in prison determines how they later deal with authority, how they react to adversity, and if they will resort to violence as a means of survival.

When overcrowding limits access to the basic building blocks of personal change, prisons can only serve as faulty foundations of recidivism.

When I think of the man who struck another with that wooden cane, I think that if he doesn’t find change in prison, he might do the same to someone else upon his release.

Readers interested in helping North Carolina reach a sensible prison agenda for the betterment of society should contact the state’s legislators and encourage them to support prison reform legislation, such as the Prison Resources Repurposing Act.

Phillip Vance Smith II has been incarcerated for 22 years. As a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (Prison Journalism Project chapter), his writing has been published in Slate, Logic(s) and the North Carolina Law Review, among others. Read historian David Cecelski’s review of Phillip’s collection of poetry on the realities of incarceration, “Life: Learning Instructions for Everyone...in Prison & Out,” published by BleakHouse Publishing and available wherever books are sold.

In response to a request for comment on understaffing at Nash Correctional Institution, a representative for the North Carolina Department of Adult Correction emailed HuffPost the following statement:

Maintaining the safety and security of correctional staff, offenders and the public remains our primary responsibility. Like so many employers in both the public and private sectors, the North Carolina Department of Adult Correction (NCDAC) is struggling to fill critical staff vacancies. Within the correctional field, prison systems nationwide are contending with the same issue.

To compensate for staffing shortages, while ensuring the highest levels of safety and security in our correctional facilities, we have closed housing units at several short-staffed facilities and transferred offenders to facilities with higher staff-to-offender ratios.

Making our facility-specific staffing issues even more acute has been a much-anticipated systemwide initiative to retrofit our older facilities with air-conditioning, which requires temporary unit closures.

As of February 2024, the last month for which we have complete data, 39% of our 8,100 correctional officer (CO) positions were vacant. Having closed vacant housing units and reassigned 445 COs associated with those units, and having contracted for about 400 non-certified private security staff to monitor prison perimeters, we have an overall effective CO vacancy rate of 29%. Nash Correctional Institution, where the author is currently incarcerated, has a CO vacancy rate of 27.9%.

CO vacancies do not comprise the entire story. Accounting for critical nursing and maintenance positions, as well as behavioral health and other frontline correctional positions, NCDAC’s overall vacancy rate is around 26%.

We have seen a consistent increase in applications for CO jobs since January 2022, when North Carolina’s correctional system implemented salary increases and a step pay plan for veteran correctional officers. We’ve also implemented a staff retention bonus program as well as salary increases targeting hard-to-fill positions in an effort to reduce staff separations. We have begun to see successes in that area, having reversed a trend of losing more COs than we can hire each month. In January 2023, we lost 107 COs and hired 64 new ones. Just over a year later, in February 2024, we hired the same number of new COs, 64, but lost only 12.

NCDAC has also become even more active in recruiting and marketing the agency. In addition to holding hundreds of job fairs and prison hiring events (620 in 2023 alone), we run broadcast ads across the state, on online platforms and on billboards and vehicles to recruit new correctional officers. We have streamlined the state hiring process by making conditional offers of employment to qualified applicants at the time of their interviews.

Our staffing shortages did not occur overnight. They predate the pandemic and the so-called “Great Resignation.” Even with these challenges, the Department remains committed to its mission to protect the public by collaboratively focusing on rehabilitation, protection, innovation, accountability and professionalism. We will continue to place great emphasis on recruitment and retention efforts to address our staffing needs.

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