RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- North Carolina's first-ever Prison Commissioner is vowing to crack down on assaults against officers and boost job training opportunities for offenders.
Todd Ishee, a former corrections officer and warden himself, is starting his new job this month after nearly 30 years working in Ohio's prison system.
"You have the opportunity to see positive change and see men and women come in and rehabilitate leave as a better person," Ishee told ABC11 in his first sit-down interview since assuming his new role. "Safety and our service of public safety is our number one, but it's a complex formula or bars and walls as well as the reentry component that is providing an atmosphere that's good for rehabilitation."
As Prison Commissioner, Ishee will manage policies, resources and leadership within the 55 prisons across the state. Kenneth Lassiter, the Director of Prisons, will continue to oversee daily operations.
"We've all got to be there for one another," Ishee said. "To create a team, a family and culture is something I hope to impact positively."
Ishee will need to get to work quickly, as offender attacks on officers continue to persist despite a series of stricter penalties and new safety equipment for corrections staff.
New data obtained by the I-Team shows 337 incidents of offenders assaulting staff members, and 50 of those incidents involved makeshift weapons such as shanks and knives. So far in 2019, offenders have attacked officers 128 times. Offender-on-offender violence, meanwhile, is occurring at a far greater clip, with 350 incidents as of July 1st.
"We've got to have a zero tolerance for offenders that want to hurt our staff," Ishee said. "I'm not a big fan of mass punishment or mass sanctioning, but for those who are involved we're going to throw the book at them and do what it takes to control the behavior and keep our staff safe."
Besides bolstering physical security, Ishee wants to invest in cognitive and emotional development to give offenders a greater sense of purpose in their rehabilitation.
"If they can return and live a productive and crime-free life, that makes our neighborhoods safer for our children to walk to the store, walk to the park," he said. "Idleness is a major contributor to violence and the more we can keep them busy in something that appeals to them they're less likely to engage in violence and hurt our staff.
The Department of Corrections is also struggling with recruiting: there are about 1,900 current open positions, which is putting more responsibility and stress on the current staff of 7,300.
There are currently an estimated 35,000 offenders behind bars.
Ishee said recruiting will be a major priority for him, and he hopes to use his personal experience as part of a strong pitch to college students and military veterans.
"We're public servants in the public service business. For people looking to make a long term contribution to the state of North Carolina, we want them."
I-Team: New prison commissioner vows 'zero tolerance' for assaults on officers