by: Kathryn Burcham Updated:MONROE, N.C. —
State prison officials are defending an inmate construction program in the wake of allegations two inmates stole cocaine and cash from an evidence locker at an N.C. State Highway Patrol office.
Investigators said troopers discovered the missing drugs and $1,300 in cash Monday morning.
State officials said the two suspected inmates were part of 14 person work gang from Brown Creek Correctional Institution and had been renovating the NCSHP Union County headquarters in Monroe.
Officials said the project was nearly complete and the suspects were painting a trooper's office when they moved a desk and apparently discovered a key to the evidence locker.
Investigators said the inmates opened the locker and took the cocaine and money.
"These are minimum custody inmates who have some experience in construction work. It's unfortunate when incidents like this happen but we feel like there are some really good benefits to the program overall," said N.C. Department of Adult Corrections Spokesman Keith Acree.
Authorities said by the time the thefts were discovered, the cocaine has disappeared and part of the money has not been recovered.
Troopers with the Highway Patrol told Channel 9 other evidence in the locker was not compromised and other pending criminal cases involving that evidence will not be affected.
Officials said the suspected inmates have been moved to a higher security unit at Brown Creek and criminal charges are pending.
Acree said DAC's Inmate Construction Program has a long and successful history and has saved taxpayers tens of millions of dollars by using inmate labor over commercial construction costs.
Acree said an internal investigation into the apparent failure of inmate supervision is ongoing, and possible disciplinary action could be taken.
"That's what we are looking into now on our end -- our internal investigation -- is to see exactly what was going on at that point, that the supervisor did not know this was happening," Acree said.
Officials said the inmate construction work at the NCSHP has been temporarily suspended and other contractors have been hired to finish the renovations.
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