Bertie Correctional Institution was understaffed in the month that Sgt. Meggan Callahan was killed there – allegedly by an inmate who beat her to death with a fire extinguisher.
State figures show that in April, when Callahan died, roughly one of every five correctional officer positions at the eastern North Carolina prison was vacant.
Bertie isn’t the only state prison with staffing problems. Statewide, about 16 percent of officer positions are vacant.
It’s unclear whether better staffing would have saved Callahan’s life. But some experts interviewed by the Observer said that’s a possibility.
Brian Dawe, executive director of the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network (ACOIN), said Bertie – like most of the nation’s prisons – appeared to be badly understaffed, based on the numbers that state prison officials provided to the Observer.
Dawe, whose group shares research to help correctional officers, said that prison leaders who operate without sufficient staff “roll the dice with people’s lives.”
“And this time it came up snake eyes,” he said.
Said Gary Harkins, former research and information director for ACOIN: “People can get killed when you don’t have enough staff. It’s as simple as that.”
David Guice, the state’s chief deputy secretary for adult correction and juvenile justice, said he does not yet know whether better staffing at Bertie would have made any difference the day that Callahan was killed.
But he said that Gov. Roy Cooper has asked him to review the circumstances “to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”
Prison leaders plan to examine many factors, including staffing patterns, Guice said.
Many of North Carolina’s maximum-security prisons are operating dangerously short of staff, current and former correctional officers told the Observer. One former officer, who rushed to a colleague’s defense after she was slashed in the neck by an inmate at Lanesboro Correctional Institution, said the attack might have been prevented with more staff.
At Bertie, Callahan was responding to a fire set inside a trash can on the evening of April 26 when an inmate beat her to death with the fire extinguisher she’d brought to douse the flames, state officials say. Inmate Craig Wissink, who has been serving a life sentence for murder since 2004, has been charged with first-degree murder in connection with Callahan’s death.
When Callahan was attacked, two other officers were nearby, according to Anthony Jernigan, who heads the State Bureau of Investigation office that covers northeastern North Carolina. One of those officers fell and hurt her knee when she went to Callahan’s defense, Jernigan said.
About 60 inmates were also near Callahan when she was attacked on April 26, Jernigan said.
Experts said that better staffing at the prison likely would have meant more eyes and ears on what inmates were doing, faster response times and more officers on the scene.
“They might have had enough officers to subdue that inmate before he got that fire extinguisher from the sergeant,” said Robert Webster, a former captain at two North Carolina maximum-security prisons.
“When you don’t have adequate staff to manage the inmates, and there’s an incident, unfortunately people can get hurt – and sometimes people even die,” Webster said.
State prison officials refused to say how many staff were on duty the day Callahan died. They contended those numbers constitute “sensitive public security information.”
But prison officials did release the monthly figures, which show that the prison had 211 officers available to work in April. Those officers must cover two shifts – and a number of them are off, sick or on vacation at any given time – so only a fraction of the total staff was likely available to work the day shift on April 26.
Bertie now houses about 935 inmates. At other prisons of comparable size, officers told the Observer, it’s common for about 50 or 60 officers to work the day shift.
There are no national standards for minimum staffing at prisons, experts say. But Harkins said the numbers provided by North Carolina suggest Bertie was “severely understaffed.”
A prison with 1,000 inmates should have a total of at least 300 to 350 officers, he said.
“If you had more staff, then you might have been looking at hurt staff instead of dead staff” (on the day Callahan died), Harkins said.
‘It’s so dangerous’
At Lanesboro, 45 miles southeast of Charlotte, it was common for 42 officers to watch about 1,200 prisoners on the night shift, according to Gregory McCoy, who worked there as a correctional officer from 2009 to 2016. That works out to about one officer for every 29 inmates.
“It’s not safe,” McCoy said. “All it would take is for five or 10 guys to decide we’re going to take over the prison. And we don’t have enough staff to fight back.”
Early on the morning of Nov. 15, 2013, Lanesboro had just four officers in the chow hall to oversee the 100 inmates who were there for breakfast, McCoy said. Had there been more, he said, one female officer might never have been assaulted.
McCoy heard the officer curse and saw her struggling with an inmate. He ran over and subdued the prisoner. But by that time, the officer was already bleeding profusely.
Inmate Donny Mosley, who is serving time for second-degree murder and robbery with a dangerous weapon, had slashed her face and neck with a razor-like weapon.
“I think if I hadn’t gotten over there in time, (Mosley) probably would have cut her throat,” McCoy said.
The gashes in the officer’s face and neck required 39 stitches.
But if another staff member had been standing beside the officer that morning, “there’s a possibility (Mosley) would have kept walking,” McCoy said.
At Polk Correctional Institution, north of Durham, two or three officers are routinely put in charge of monitoring more than 200 inmates in the chow hall, said Sierra Gravitte, an officer who this month resigned from the prison after four years on the job.
“It’s so dangerous,” Gravitte said. “It puts officers’ lives in danger to be honest.”
“The inmates literally say, ‘You all are understaffed, so if we wanted to, we could overtake this prison.’ ”
Finding people who are willing to work as prison officers isn’t easy. The pay is low – an average of the about $35,000 annually at maximum-security prisons – and the work is dangerous and demanding.
Once every eight hours last year, a North Carolina prison officer was assaulted.
Guice, the prison leader, acknowledged that the state faces significant staffing challenges. Many of the large maximum-security prisons – such as Bertie and Lanesboro – are located in rural areas, where recruiting can be difficult.
State prison leaders say they are holding many hiring events and partnering with schools and military bases to fill jobs. And they say pay increases approved by the legislature in 2015 will also help with recruiting. The state has recently made offers to about 400 officer candidates, so the vacancy rate will likely drop, Guice said.
But while North Carolina typically hires about 1,800 to 2,000 prison officers per year, it usually loses about that many as well.
“We’ve got to find a way to retain the people who work for us,” Guice said. “We’ve got a lot of folks who are not staying with us.”
Prison leaders say they have begun assigning new officers “career readiness coaches,” who provide pointers on dealing with inmates, keeping themselves safe and attaining career goals.
Prison leaders say that when staff vacancies at a prison rise, they make adjustments, such as moving prisoners, reducing inmate programs and sending fewer staff members to special training.
Over-reliance on overtime?
To cope with the shortages, many prisons have also paid hundreds of thousands each year for overtime. Statewide, correctional officers received more than $12 million in overtime in 2015, the Observer found.
Some correctional officers have more than doubled their income by working overtime.
One Polk officer made $29,800 in salary in 2015. She earned an extra $36,500 in overtime that year, records show. In 2014, a Lanesboro officer was paid $29,800 but made another $35,600 in overtime.
Officers said excessive overtime work can leave them burned out and exhausted.
Angela Smith, who worked as an officer at Tabor Correctional Institution from 2010 to 2014, said she was often asked to work overtime because the prison was so understaffed.
“When your shift starts at 5:30 a.m. and you work 12 hours and you get told you’re held over till 9 (p.m.) … you’re not alert. You’re tired. Your morale goes down,” she said.
The staffing shortages also put officers in danger, Smith said.
“You can only spread people so thin,” she said. “If inmates … wanted to jump another inmate or take somebody out that day, that would be the time to do it – when you’re understaffed.”
SEANC presents check to Callahan family
The State Employees Association of North Carolina has presented a check for more than $4,000 to the family of Meggan Callahan, the prison sergeant who was killed inside Bertie Correctional Institution last month.
In accepting the check, Callahan’s mother, Wendy, said her daughter “loved her job and she was very good at her job. She was a leader and she trained people well. We are very proud as a family of what Meggan did,” according to a news release issued by SEANC.
Callahan was responding to a fire at Bertie on April 26 when an inmate beat her to death with the fire extinguisher she’d brought to douse the flames, state officials said. In April, when Callahan died, roughly one of every five correctional officer positions at the prison was vacant, state figures show.
SEANC President Stanley Drewery, who presented the check to Callahan’s family, is a former prison employee – and he said he knows about the dangers caused by prison understaffing.
“We just wanted to show our support as a SEANC family,” Drewery said during the check presentation. “I know we cannot give her enough to bring her daughter back, but we want to give her love and show her support for the sacrifices her daughter made for each and every one of us.”