Rehabilitation, solitary confinement, staff vacancies in focus at confirmation hearing for new corrections chief

By: - February 1, 2023 6:00 am
Secretary of the Department of Adult Correction Todd Ishee at Tuesday’s confirmation hearing (Photo: video feed)

Senate Judiciary Committee questions Todd Ishee before voting on his appointment later today.

As state senators peppered him with questions gauging whether he should be the secretary of the new Department of Adult Correction, Todd Ishee repeatedly returned to the same point: education and vocational programs are important for many of the roughly 30,000 people held in the state’s prisons, 95% of whom will be released someday.

“We bear a responsibility as a state to produce good neighbors, and transition men and women home that are ready to be successful,” Ishee said. “Education is a very important part of that.”

As much as Ishee plugged rehabilitation for the incarcerated, he also underscored the importance of protecting corrections staff, going so far as to say that the prison system cannot comply with the Mandela Rules on solitary confinement; those rules call for United Nations-member states to prohibit prolonged restrictive housing for more than 15 consecutive days. Ishee said the prison system is revising its policies on solitary confinement and its disciplinary policies for incarcerated people, but he stopped short of committing to end prolonged isolation in North Carolina prisons.

“In corrections, we face some very, very harsh realities. You know, we’re supervising men that have killed employees of ours. And because of that level of dangerous, some [people] need to be in restrictive housing longer than 15 days,” Isle said. “There are some [people] that just pose such a serious safety risk that they’ve got to be placed in that more controlled environment for beyond 15 days.”

Ishee made the comments yesterday in a hearing before the Senate Committee on Judiciary as part of his appointment to be the first Secretary of Adult Correction in North Carolina’s new Department of Adult Correction, a massive state agency with about 20,000 employees responsible for overseeing the 115,000 people in state prisons or on supervision.

Ishee spent 30 years in Ohio working as the deputy director for the state’s Department of Rehabilitation and Correction’s Office of Reentry and Enterprise Development. He became North Carolina’s prison commissioner in 2019 — at the time within the Department of Public Safety — overseeing the agency in the early stages of the pandemic before announcing in August 2022 that he would resign to lead the American Correctional Association, a national organization.

But then the next month Gov. Roy Cooper announced Ishee would remain in North Carolina after all, appointing him to head the new executive branch state agency, the Department of Adult Correction. The job requires Senate approval since it is a cabinet-level position.

Legislators interviewed Ishee for about an hour Tuesday. They will vote on his appointment in a hearing that’s scheduled to start at 2:00 p.m. Wednesday.

Coping with chronic staffing shortages

On Tuesday, Ishee talked a lot about staff vacancies within the department, which he said has a 40% vacancy rate. He said improving staffing levels would be his “first goal” as secretary, and that he hoped to lower the vacancy rate to around 20% in four years.

“I don’t see a quick fix to the significant staffing challenges we have,” he said.

Those staff shortages impact the well-being of the incarcerated, too, Ishee said. The prison system has about a 40% vacancy among nursing staff, and a 25% shortage among mental health clinicians, requiring the agency to rely on telehealth services. Ishee thanked the General Assembly for allocating more money to prison health care in the budget, but insisted there was still work to be done, especially as it relates to helping incarcerated people who have mental health issues or substance use disorders.

“The vast majority of our offender population struggles with one or the other, or both,” Ishee said. “Mental health and substance use disorders are major challenges, really for criminal justice systems and for our state as a whole.”

Ishee said his insights on the needs of corrections staff and the incarcerated population come from his in-person visits to the state’s prisons. He sees leaving the office and talking to employees or those imprisoned and entrusted to his care as an integral part of his job. Employees routinely tell him they’re worried about staffing levels and pay. They frequently tell him that they want referral bonuses if they bring on an employee who stays on the job. The agency plans to implement such bonuses starting this month. The incarcerated, meanwhile, often ask Ishee how they can be a mentor or get into a work-release program.

“I get a lot of value from those visits,” Ishee said. “If I sit here in Raleigh, people are going to tell me what they want to know, or what they want me to know, or what they think I should know… I’m just the type [that] I need to get out and see it for myself.”

Rebounding from the pandemic

Sen. Danny Britt, a Republican representing Robeson, Hoke and Scotland counties, asked Ishee about his role in the COVID-19 lawsuit that led to the state’s release of 3,500 people from prison. Ishee said he was significantly involved, given his position as head of the prison system, but notifying the families of victims was outside the scope of his role; that was the responsibility of the Department of Public Safety’s Victim Services.

“Today all of the offenders that were released that were under the extended limits of confinement have now exited that status,” Ishee said. “That case is behind us and we’re moving forward.”

The prison system is mostly back to normal, Ishee said, despite the fact that COVID-19 still poses a threat, particularly to those with chronic health conditions. Officials continue to rebuild the work-release program, as well as educational opportunities, but he said the virus is not actively impairing the prison system every day, like it was earlier in the pandemic.

“We don’t have any COVID restrictions, our prison population and our staff are by and large healthy,” Ishee said. “So we’ve kind of returned operations back to normal, which has been very welcomed by our staff and by the offender population.”

The staff shortages and longer term impacts of the pandemic have left gaps in the services offered by the prison system, Ishee said, particularly as it relates to work release and educational programming. But the department is using technology to try to fill that gap, and rehabilitate incarcerated people so the don’t return to prison.

Ishee highlighted the mobile tablets given to the incarcerated that, through a secure network, allow them to watch movies, play games and access self-help and educational programs.

Such technology likely played a big role in the reduction of violence inflicted on corrections staff and misconduct committed by the incarcerated population, Ishee said.

“Idleness in prison is a major challenge for our staff,” he said. “When people are sitting around with nothing to do, generally they find something to do, and most of the time it is not positive.”

Later, under questioning from Sen. Lisa Grafstein, a Wake County Democrat, Ishee clarified that not everyone has equal access to the tablets. People in restrictive housing — solitary confinement — cannot play games or watch movies on the tablets, but they can use them to access self-help programs.

“And we hope that that will help offenders occupy that time productively,” Ishee said, noting that perhaps that access to programming on the tablets would “prepare them to return to general population status, and maybe not get themselves into the situation that landed them in in restrictive housing.”

Listen to Ishee respond to Senator Mujtaba Mohammed about what investments are needed to reduce turnover and improve the working conditions in the prison system:

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.