Two prison employees were killed and three others critically injured Thursday during an attempted escape at Pasquotank Correctional Institution.
The attempted breakout from the prison in Elizabeth City began around 3 p.m. when inmates set a fire in the prison’s sewing plant, where about 30 inmates produce embroidered logo items, safety vests and other items for government agencies and nonprofits, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety said.
Several inmates tried to escape as the fire was being extinguished, but they were unsuccessful, officials said. The prison was put on lockdown, with all inmates accounted for.
DPS identified the employees who died as Correctional Officer Justin Smith, 35, who provided security in the sewing plant, and Correction Enterprises manager Veronica Darden, 50, who supervised inmates working in the plant.
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Three other prison employees remain hospitalized in critical condition, and seven others were treated and released, according to DPS. Four inmates were also treated for injuries.
Over emergency radio, first responders could be heard describing the scene:
“Be advised, we do have a mass casualty incident. I have multiple patients,” said one. “Some of them are critical. … There are probably no more than two critical. But I have many, many patients.”
Another responder described the condition of an officer who was “struck multiple times with a hammer.”
Prison officials believe the fire at the sewing plant was set by inmates who were planning to escape. It’s not yet clear how many inmates were involved.
One inmate who attempted to escape was pulled off a prison fence, prison spokesman Keith Acree said, “but no one made it outside the fence.”
Like other prison workers, Darden and Smith had dangerous jobs. Once every eight hours, on average, a North Carolina prison officer was assaulted last year.
A perilous job
Statewide, there were 1,160 assaults on state prison staff in 2016 – up from 1,136 the previous year, state figures show.
At Bertie Correctional Institution, about 60 miles to the southwest of Pasquotank, prison Sgt. Meggan Callahan was killed in April. Authorities say an inmate there set a fire in a trash can, then beat Callahan with the fire extinguisher that she had brought to douse the flames.
Prior to Callahan’s death, it had been seven years since the last North Carolina prison officer died as a result of an inmate assault.
“Those who work in our prisons do a difficult and demanding job that is critical to our safety,” Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement issued late Thursday. “We're grateful to these fallen prison employees for their service, and we offer our condolences to their families, friends, coworkers and community on this tragic loss.”
Darden had been a Correction Enterprises employee since 2007 and previously worked as a correctional officer. Smith had worked as a correctional officer since 2012.
By Friday morning, state officials had provided few details about the incident, so it was unclear whether Darden and Smith died as a result of attacks by inmates, the fire or some other cause.
State Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks also released a statement late Thursday:
“The DPS family is devastated by the tragic events that took place at Pasquotank Correctional Institution. Our deepest sympathies go out to the families and co-workers of the employees who lost their lives in service to the State. We will do everything we can to support their families during this difficult time. I want to thank law enforcement and emergency responders for their assistance, and we will do everything we can to assist the investigation.”
Members of the Prison Emergency Response Team, consisting of officers from other North Carolina prisons, responded to Pasquotank to assist, DPS officials said Thursday evening.
Elizabeth City is in Eastern North Carolina, about 50 miles south of Norfolk, Va., and near North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
The prison houses about 730 adult, male felons in both high-security and minimum-custody buildings. Minimum-security prisoners work outside the walls on road gangs for the county recycling department and performing other community labor.
Said prison spokesman Acree: “It’s just a sad day for us.”
The Associated Press contributed.