Todd Ishee, the man who piloted the North Carolina prison system through the worst of the deadly coronavirus pandemic, will leave his job at month’s end for another high-profile role — leading the American Correctional Association.
While serving as the state’s commissioner of prisons for the past three years, Ishee faced formidable challenges: responding to the spread of COVID-19 inside prison walls, encouraging thousands of inmates to get vaccinated, and keeping prisons safe and secure despite the most severe staff shortages in recent history.
Following Ishee’s departure on Aug. 31, Brandeshawn Harris will serve as acting prisons commissioner, staff members were told. Harris now serves as assistant commissioner, helping Ishee oversee state prison operations. A former prison officer and warden, she previously worked in Ohio’s prison system for 25 years.
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The coronavirus pandemic threatened the lives of those who live and work in North Carolina’s state prisons, especially during the many months before vaccines were available. Fifty eight inmates have died so far from COVID-19, the last of them in February.
The state doesn’t keep tabs on how many prison staff members die from COVID-19. But as of late 2020, the virus had claimed the lives of at least seven staff members, the Observer has reported.
Convincing people at risk to get the vaccines, which is voluntary for those sentenced to state prison terms, wasn’t easy. Now, about three quarters of the state’s 30,000 inmates are vaccinated.
Ishee, 52, also struggled to keep prisons adequately staffed during the pandemic, when hundreds of officers were leaving for better pay and less demanding jobs. Statewide, the percentage of unfilled correctional officer jobs rose from about 17% in January 2021 to almost 33% in December, the Observer has reported.
With staff members scrambling to take care of basic prison functions, many inmates were denied access to recreation, programs and prompt medical care, prisoners and advocates have repeatedly told the Observer.
Ishee has acknowledged that his staff members were stretched thin. The state has boosted pay, closed many prison units, and required officers to work overtime in response.
Sandra Hardee, executive director of NC CURE, a group that advocates for inmates, said she found Ishee was always willing to listen to her concerns.
“He was a very genuine, hard-working guy,” she said. “He wanted us to know the full facts. He saw us as a group who would collaborate with them.”
Ishee is also a realist, Hardee said. When the two of them talked earlier this year about how inmates should report sexual abuse, Ishee encouraged Hardee to put the information in the group’s newsletter because inmates “listen to you better than they do us.”
Before becoming the state’s prison chief, Ishee served as deputy director for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
He now earns $156,000 annually, but his job move will likely bring him a significant bump in pay. James Gondles, the ACA’s soon-to-retire executive director, earned about $422,000 in 2020, according to the nonprofit organization’s tax return.
Based in Alexandria, Va., the ACA is the oldest professional organization for correctional officials. The group conducts research, provides training for prison officials, and accredits jails and prisons that meet its standards.