The following editorial appeared in The Fayetteville Observer.
If any elected official in Raleigh expresses shock over the beating death of prison guard Meggan Lee Callahan, don’t believe it. They’re either putting you on or they’re not intellectually fit for elective office. Meggan Lee Callahan’s beating death, allegedly by a convicted Fayetteville murderer, was mayhem just waiting to happen. If it didn’t happen to her, it would have happened to someone else. And it may still happen at any time.
The state Department of Public Safety isn’t letting out much information about the April 26 incident at Bertie Correctional Institution in the northeast corner of North Carolina. But it has stated that prisoner Craig Wissink, serving a life sentence for a Cumberland County murder in 2000, is charged with repeatedly beating the guard with a fire extinguisher that he took from her as she rushed to put out a cellblock fire set by inmates. According to a letter to the Observer from another convicted murderer at Bertie Correctional, Callahan was targeted for revenge by some inmates because of a decision to put another prisoner into segregation.
The letter writer, Darryl Murphy, wrote that the prison was “woefully understaffed,” with only six correctional officers to control 246 prisoners in his unit. According to the Department of Correction, the Bertie prison had filled about 45 correctional officer positions in April but still has a 15 percent vacancy rate. Despite legislative authorization for prison officer raises last year, the vacancy rate across the state’s 55-prison system still stands at 16 percent. Because most of the state’s prisons are in remote locations, the applicant pools can be small, further complicating the problem.
A series of stories last month in The Charlotte Observer sheds some light on why our prisons are so dangerous for their own employees. Drugs, sex and gang activity are thriving inside the state’s prison system, the Observer’s reporters found. Prison officials, desperate to find applicants willing to work inside the prisons, often hire employees with troubled pasts, putting them on the job with minimal training – sometimes as little as a week. And pay is horrible. The average pay for correctional officers is $32,000 at minimum security prisons and $35,000 for maximum security institutions like Bertie. The national average for correctional officers is about $47,000. Small wonder that some officers succumb to temptation and smuggle in cellphones and drugs for inmates. Since 2012, at least 70 state employees have faced criminal charges for offenses inside prisons and more than 400 others were fired for misconduct.
Does that sound like an environment where the “correction” in prisons’ name is remotely possible? Not to us. Nor does it sound safe for anyone – neither the guards nor the inmates. The taxpayers are spending more than $1 billion a year on our prison system, but it’s clearly understaffed and in need of greater oversight – as well as a living wage for its guards.
Time for lawmakers and state officials to do a serious investigation of our prison system’s needs and shortcomings, and share all the information with the public – especially a plan for fixing it. They should have a sense of urgency about it, before we have to share the story of the next Meggan Lee Callahan.