RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — North Carolina’s new Department of Adult Correction needs more staff.

The man expected to lead the agency faced a Senate committee Tuesday to discuss the agency’s most pressing needs. 

Getting fully staffed is the agency’s top priority.

In September, Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Secretary Todd Ishee to lead the newly created Department of Adult Correction.

The agency broke away from the Department of Public Safety to focus on solving a long list of problems.

“Our challenge is how can we maintain appropriate levels of safety and still carry out our responsibility to rehabilitate and produce good neighbors,” explained Ishee.

Right now, there is a 40% vacancy rate for correctional officers. There’s also a 40% vacancy rate for their nursing allocations. 

The department is also down 25% for mental health clinicians. 

“I don’t see a quick fix to significant staff challenges that we have,” added Ishee. 

Next month, the department will launch an employee referral bonus program.

Ishee believes that’s just the start in recruiting and retaining more workers. 

“In 2021, we lost more than we hired as an agency. In 2022, on the prison side, we broke even,” he said.

In the meantime, officials are getting creative with their staff shortages and are using technology to fill in some of the gaps.

This includes, but isn’t limited to, using Telehealth to help make up for the lack of healthcare workers in the prison system. 

But it goes further than that.

“One of our main technology processes that we’re going to leverage is offender tablets,” explained Ishee. “Tablets have some evidence-based programs on substance abuse disorders. It can help address needs, until we get offenders the in-person resources they need.”

The tablets will also provide music and movies for inmates to purchase, as well as, allow access to educational programs. 

The hope is these devices will make prisons safer for both inmates and officers.

“[The tablets] provide value for us too. Idleness in prison presents a major problem,” said Ishee.

Already, offender violence in prisons is down. 

Ishee shared with the Senate committee that for the third year in a row, they recorded a decrease in violence against correction officers and overall misconduct. 

An unsafe work environment is one of the reasons why retention with prison staff can suffer.

“Corrections is a tough business. We have a rare group of public servants who face dangerous situations every day,” said Ishee. 

Ishee also shared the launch of a new mental health response unit for staff, to provide a gateway to get assistance in coping with a stressful job. 

He added that for people to stay they need to be felt taken care of, heard, and invested in. Ishee said while salary is a big concern for many, it is not the end all be all. 

The Senate committee will meet again on Wednesday for the vote.