I grew up around the criminal justice system. My mother was a federal pretrial probation officer and I always wanted to do her job. It required background checks, interviewing defendants and their families, and recommending pretrial probation or no pretrial probation based on what she learned. Because of her job, I grew up watching her in court when I had a day off. I got to see lock up, court proceedings, and met with judges from a young age. I fell in love with learning about the system and had a great passion for justice. In fact, I was determined to follow in my mother’s footsteps so I graduated with my degree in criminal justice.
Even though I don’t work in the criminal justice field, I still have a deep interest in criminal justice reform. So when the Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform gave the legislators and legislative staff in North Carolina an opportunity to tour the local prison, I jumped at the chance.
I visited Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina.
We showed up at the visitor center with no phones, no smart watches, and no purses. Armed with just our keys and our I.D.’s, we entered through security. It was much like TSA at an airport. We got patted down as an extra measure. The whole process took less than five minutes – definitely more efficient than TSA. We then sat down in a conference room where we met with some of the staff. We learned about the background of the prison.
At the time, their count was just under 900 inmates. They had just under 200 inmates who had work assignments in the kitchen, as janitors, doing laundry, etc. They also have 216 beds in their mental health unit. Central Prison is a close custody. This means that it is the highest level of custody in the state. It is an all-male facility that houses death row inmates.
We began the tour by going to look at the unit where the people who were in trouble with infractions and people called “safe keepers” are held. Safe keepers are inmates from other facilities that are housed at Central because the county in which the inmate is meant to be held can not house them for whatever reason. This unit tends to have the most infractions as a whole. They tend to be the “bad boys” of the group. Because this unit is pretty much “punishment” for bad behavior, they are only allowed to have limited things in their cells and less commissary items.
Then, we moved on to the Death Row unit. This is a separate area of the prison and it was very quiet. The men housed on Death Row are said to be the more well-behaved inmates. Some even have working privileges and get to earn more money for commissary. The law only requires that they be given recreation time 3 times a week and get to go to commissary 3 times a week, but at Central Prison, they get to go 7 days a week to both.
Next, we headed to the medical unit. I was so impressed with the abundance of medical care. The unit looked just like a hospital with an urgent care, surgical rooms, doctors on staff, nurses working, physical therapy, dentist, oncology, and more. Because of this great medical unit, many inmates from across the state are brought to Central to get any surgery they need done or any dental work done. It was incredible to witness. I hope that the dedication to health care remains.
We headed to the mental health unit where we got to enter a unit that wasn’t currently in use. We learned that people in this unit have a wide range of mental health diagnoses and that they get treatment for these through programs. Some of the programs even involve art and hands on activities to harness emotion. The art lines the hallways of this unit and serves as encouragement for any participants. Once a course is completed, they have a graduation and a pizza party.
Our last stop on the tour of the facility brought us to the unit where the inmates who had work assignments lived. These men are seen as the best behaved. In fact, they have to earn their way to this unit. They do everything from sweep floors, work in the barber shop, cook the food, clean the kitchen and dining areas, etc. These guys are taking their skills from the outside and bringing them in.
Overall, the experience was wonderful and I was impressed by the amount of effort the warden, and program directors, and staff in general, put into these inmates. They care for the safety of the inmates and the health of inmates. I realized that I would appreciate more prisons operating like this because I have only heard the horror stories. I wish more people could come look at Central Prison and learn by what they’re doing.