Albemarle Correctional Institution at half capacity for correctional officers

Colorful signs line the path through the courtyard to the main doors of the Albemarle Correctional Institution.

“Hands down, you are the best staff around,” one sign reads, as part of Employee Appreciation Week. “You Rock,” and “We truly appreciate you,” read others.

While working in a prison can be stressful, operations at Albemarle seem to be running smoothly, with correctional officers and administrative staff friendly and engaging in their interactions with visitors.

The “now hiring” flags fluttering outside are the only tangible signs of an ongoing staff shortage.

The prison, which opened in 1999, is supposed to have roughly 168 correctional officers when operating at full capacity, but currently only has around 80, or about 50%, according to Albemarle Warden Kenneth Diggs. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the prison was only at about 20% capacity, Diggs said.

“It makes everything more difficult from a security standpoint,” said Correctional Capt. Zachary Guthrie, who’s worked at Albemarle for 10 years. “Safety is always our No. 1 concern.”

Statewide, the Department of Corrections has a 43% vacancy rate for correctional officers as of March, Diggs said.

Spectrum News first reported about statewide staffing problems, including those at Albemarle, in a story last month.

“The Great Resignation took over and there were a lot of opportunities elsewhere,” Diggs said. “Prisons are typically jobs that are hard to fill and it’s even harder when there’s competition with surrounding businesses.”

Diggs has worked at Albemarle for almost seven years, including as warden since the end of 2019. He has worked for the state Department of Corrections for more than 30 years.

There are three housing units at the prison, each named after North Carolina lakes: Badin, Tillery and Falls. Because of the shortages, Albemarle shut down the Tillery unit about a year and a half ago, transferring the roughly 272 inmates to other prisons.

Albemarle is built to house 856 inmates, but that number is now around 580, according to Diggs.

“It’s actually a benefit,” Diggs said, since the staff have been reassigned to help bolster the other housing units. He said that about three-fourths of prisons across the state have also shut down units.

Another upshot of Tillery being vacant is the prison just began a yearlong project to install air conditioning in the unit. Once finished, the other two units will be renovated, with inmates temporarily housed in Tillery.

Diggs is cautiously optimistic that Albemarle can eventually get back to its pre-pandemic staffing levels. The prison hosts hiring events each week and is looking to have a presence at the Oakboro Fourth of July parade.

Albemarle has hired nine new correctional officers since Jan. 1.

“We’re trying everything,” Diggs said.

Much of his optimism comes from the fact that Albemarle is much more than “just the prison that is across from the airport,” which most people often see it as, Diggs said. It is often regarded as one of the better prisons in the state, Diggs said. Albemarle consistently receives high scores on inspections, including the unannounced security audit, and several staff members have been recognized by the state.

Diggs, for example, was named the 2022 South Central Region Warden of the Year while Sheana Litaker was named the 2022 South Central Region Nurse of the Year.

“When we go to awards ceremonies, I expect us to receive an award of some type because we have a great staff that are hard working and do a great job,” Diggs said. “I’m proud of the staff here.”

The close bonds between the staff have contributed to Albemarle’s success.

“All we have is each other,” Guthrie said. “We have to have each other’s backs.”

Albemarle is also the first male medium-security prison in North Carolina to offer the R-STEP re-entry program.

The program helps inmates prepare for what life will be like when they get out, including things like creating a bank account and finding a job.

“We know these guys are going back into society and it’s our goal to ensure they go back to being positive, productive members of society,” said Associate Warden for Programs Cordelia McBride, who runs the R-STEP program.

Inmates can receive an education during their time at Albemarle. Stanly Community College offers GED instruction and courses in a variety of subjects, including HVAC, computer applications and electronics technology.

A graduation ceremony was held at the prison earlier this month where 19 inmates were recognized. Three received their high school equivalency diplomas, while others completed courses related to HVAC, Small Business Management and Information Technology.

Diggs has seen how a lifelong friend changed his life after prison, and knows inmates can do the same.

“Just because you made a mistake does not mean you cannot better yourself,” he said. “You can leave here as a better person than when you came in, 100 percent.”