In 2009, reporter Ames Alexander received a letter that launched a multi-year investigation into corruption at the state's prisons. It was a tip about an inmate who was abused at Lanesboro Correctional Institution. He was pepper sprayed after requesting medical help, and then taken to wash off the burning chemicals, but once naked, officers sprayed him again and wouldn't allow him to receive medical care.

After Alexander wrote this story, the leads began to trickle in from current and former inmates and officers. He then realized this was a significant problem across the entire state.

Over two years Alexander and his colleagues, Gavin Off and Elizabeth Leland, corresponded with over 80 inmates, and more than 65 officers. Their extensive reports were recently published in The Charlotte Observer

Interview Highlights

How widespread is prison corruption?

From what we found it's happening all across the state, particularly at the maximum-security prisons – places where you tend to see the most gang members, [and] the most violent inmates. That's not to say that most officers are corrupt. I would say the vast majority of officers are honest and trying to doing their best in a dangerous situation, and for not very much pay. But from what we could find, there were corrupt officers in just about every maximum-security prison. In fact, prison leaders acknowledge as much.

You said that “state leaders have created the very conditions that allow corruption to flourish” - how so?

For one, they don't pay officers very much. At maximum-security prisons, the average pay is about $35K per year. Then on top of that, state prisons don't thoroughly background check these officers before they hire them. They don't check the Facebook pages of prospective prison officers. They make it easy for officers to make money on the side sneaking in contraband, because they don't require officers to turn out their pockets when they show up for work.

Has anything changed in the two years since the investigation was launched?

There's not been a lot done to curb the corruption. State officials do say they're aware of these problems, and they're taking steps to address them. They do have plans for technology that will help them detect contraband, particularly cell phones. They have plans to improve training. And the legislature has boosted pay since 2015. That said, we still lag far behind in how much we pay officers.

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