Gov. Roy Cooper is rightly asking the painful questions in the tragic death of Sgt. Meggan Callahan, who was beaten to death the night of April 26, allegedly by an inmate who hit her with a fire extinguisher she had brought to his area to put out a trash can fire. The incident happened at the Bertie Correctional Institution.
Like many such places in North Carolina, staffing is a problem, and there are indications Bertie is one of many, many prisons where it is tough to maintain an adequate number of guards. It’s no wonder when, in that prison, officers make an average of $35,000 at maximum security prisons. This, to do work that is just about as dangerous as work can get.
The potential consequences of understaffing is that inmates and guards can be ever at risk. Guards protect inmates from each other, some of them violent people in prison for long or life terms, and thus with little to lose. The inmate alleged to have killed Callahan was doing life for a murder.
The question that David Guice, chief deputy secretary of Public Safety for adult correction and juvenile justice, will be asking is whether additional staff might have prevented the tragedy of Callahan’s death.
It’s hard to see how it might not have done so. If more guards had been present, might there not have been an intervention?
Another question is, how many people at how many prisons are at risk? Currently, 16 percent of office positions are vacant. And that may be an understatement in that prisons have historically been understaffed, period. As reported by the Charlotte Observer, at one prison near Charlotte, about 42 officers watch 1,200 inmates on the night shift. On its face, that’s a catastrophe waiting to happen. The Observer reported, in fact, that many current and former correctional officers said maximum security prisons in particular are understaffed and long have been.
Cooper, a former attorney general, likely isn’t going to be surprised by what’s found in the follow-up, and he knows what’s needed – more money for more prison officers and better pay to retain them.
In this area, as in many others from school nurses and counselors to public health to pre-K enrollment, the Republican-led General Assembly could apply a surplus of several hundred million dollars to fill some important gaps. Instead, the surplus is turned into unneeded tax cuts for the wealthy.
And so the state, in the case of prisons, flirts with tragedy every day – life and death tragedy. Cooper and his Public Safety people have a strong case to make, if lawmakers will listen. If they don’t, more problems, potentially deadly problems, will occur – problems that could have been prevented.