When Aaron Parson left his job as a prison officer last year, he was making $32,000.
The income, he said, barely helped to support a wife and two kids. So when N.C. Department of Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks received a $23,400 pay raise last month, Parson’s thought:
“The people who run the prisons in Raleigh only look out for themselves,” he said.
Hooks, who oversees a department of some 25,000 employees plus 11,000 National Guard soldiers, now earns $179,400, state data show.
Hooks isn’t the highest paid cabinet member. Jim Trogdon, head of the N.C. Department of Transportation, makes $222,300. The heads of budget and management, health and human services and information technology also earn more than the DPS secretary.
Jill Lucas, spokeswoman for the state’s Office of Human Resources, said pay for cabinet members such as Hooks is reviewed periodically, and the increase Hooks received was because of added work.
“The Secretary’s increased responsibilities reflect the state being hit by Hurricane Florence and other natural disasters, as well as additional demands in his role as Homeland Security Advisor,” Lucas wrote in an email.
Senior leadership in the governor’s office signed off on the increase, Lucas said.
According to an Observer analysis, six state government employees received at least a $10,000 raise this year. Four of those increases came last month.
Low pay for prison workers
Sen. Bob Steinburg, who chairs a committee on prison safety, said he was “flabbergasted” by the timing of Hooks’ raise.
The senate, he said, is reviewing whether to remove the prison system from DPS control and recreate a Department of Corrections, which the state had in 2011.
“Here we’ve got someone who’s been given a raise April 1 with all of this stuff potentially pending,” Steinburg said. “And we have chaos within corrections.”
That chaos includes low pay and a high vacancy rate for prison officers.
Last December, 18% of officer positions were vacant, data show. Some prisons had a vacancy rate of more than 35% at some point last year.
Bertie Correctional Institution was short-staffed in 2017 when Sgt. Meggan Callahan was allegedly attacked and killed by an inmate.
And the sewing plant at Pasquotank Correctional Institution was short-staffed when four inmates tried to escape the facility in October 2017. Four prison workers were fatally wounded during the escape attempt.
“Understaffing is the chief issue that contributes to an unsafe environment,” said Robert Broome, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina.
Despite pay raises in recent years, North Carolina correctional officers are paid 22 percent less than the national average, Broome said
This year, the House’s budget proposal calls for a 5% pay increase for correctional officers. The governor’s budget is seeking a 1.5% pay increase or $500 — whatever is greater.
Hooks’ raise totaled 15%. Since he became DPS secretary in early 2017, his salary has jumped $41,000 or 30%.
“It’s sending a horrible message to the rank and file,” Steinburg said. “Nobody is more aware of the problems they have at corrections then Secretary Hooks, and if I were him, I would be embarrassed.”
Starting pay for prison officers ranges from $33,000 to $36,500, depending on the custody level of the prison.
Parson, who now works in event management, estimated that half of the roughly 1,800 officers who leave the prison system each year leave because of low pay.
He said several of his former co-workers work a second job or extra hours just to get by.
“(Hooks’ raise) is almost insulting,” said Parson, 34. “I can sit behind my desk, knowing that I won’t get my neck cut but you’re going into the prisons.”