Published 4:47 pm Friday, September 27, 2019

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JACKSON – The North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) announced through a press release on Sept. 24 that Odom Correctional Institution would be one of three prisons across the state to temporarily suspend operations.

Employees and offenders at the prison located south of Jackson will be reassigned elsewhere while the suspension remains in effect. The purpose of the shutdown is to provide more workers to other understaffed prisons.

Hoke Correctional Institution in Raeford and Tyrrell Prison Work Farm in Columbia are the other two facilities which will be temporarily shut down. Reassigning employees and offenders from all three facilities will occur in phases over the next few months.

Odom Correctional Institution will soon suspend operations on a temporary basis in order to send its staff to fill vacancies at other state prisons. NC Dept. of Public Safety photo

“The statewide average correctional officer vacancy rate for August was estimated at 21 percent,” stated the NCDPS release. “This level of staffing impacts operations and limits the ability of staff to take leave and attend training. Staff vacancy rates also negatively impact the delivery of offender programs.”

John M.R. Bull, Communications Officer/Adult Correction at NCDPS, told the News Herald through a telephone interview on Wednesday that the current staff of 80 Correctional Officers at Odom will be reassigned to other state-operated prisons in the region, which could include prisons in Pasquotank, Warren, and Nash counties as well as Caledonia Correctional Institution, located across the Roanoke River in neighboring Halifax County.

“The officers at those facilities, and others across our state, are stressed from their high vacancy rates,” he continued. “Those officers are frequently working overtime and double shifts, which places them under a lot of stress. We’re asking those now working at Odom, Hoke Correctional, and the Tyrrell Work Farm to help out their colleagues for the short term.”

“We value our employees and our goal is to reassign staff such that the temporary reassignments are accomplished with minimal disruption to families,” noted Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee.

Bull added that other associated staff at Odom will also be “redistributed.”

A small number of employees, mainly maintenance and security personnel, will continue working at Odom during the shutdown.

After six months, the plan will be re-evaluated. Bull said NCDPS may decide to “tweak” the plan after that.

The temporary shutdown announced on Tuesday had been under discussion for over a year, Bull noted.

“With our (officer) vacancy rate now exceeding 20 percent, we have reached a point where this plan needed to be implemented,” he explained. “We have watched those vacancy rates climb despite our best efforts to recruit and maintain new officers. We have jobs available with great benefits. We encourage those looking at a new career to consider joining our team.”

Daryl Williams, a retired NCDPS employee and former recruiter, said the news did not come as a shock to him. He said that the state has previously shut down smaller prisons, such as the former correctional facility in Gates County for example, and reassigned employees to other prisons. During his career he had also been a part of a reduction in force at Odom and was reassigned to Caledonia.

“It’s not fun having to go to another prison,” Williams recalled. “But it worked out for me. I made it work out. I went with a positive attitude.”

When he worked as a NCDPS recruiter, Williams said there was always a struggle to reduce the vacancy rate.

“If you have a prison that’s vacant (of employees), you end up having to work a lot of overtime. It’s a lot more stressful not having enough staff. We were just trying to keep it from getting worse,” he explained.

In some cases, Williams added, they simply had a difficult time finding an employable base of people who fit the qualifications for the job, such as passing a background check and having a valid driver’s license.

“There was more to it than just ‘we weren’t hiring enough people.’ Sometimes we couldn’t find enough people to hire,” he said.

Williams said he expected to see more prison reforms in the future, especially with Rep. Bob Steinburg as the chairman of the NC General Assembly’s committee on Prison Safety. Steinburg represents District 1, which includes Hertford and Gates counties, in the NC Senate.

The land for Odom Correctional Institution (2,200 acres located off Bryantown Road) was purchased by the state in 1958 from the Odom family. The 300-bed prison, which has been expanded and currently lists a capacity of 352 offenders, opened in 1961.