In April, Bertie Correctional Institution prison Sgt. Meggan Callahan was killed after inmates set fire to a trash can and an inmate beat Callahan with a fire extinguisher she had brought to put out the flames. Now two prison employees were killed Thursday at Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City. Early reports are that inmates set a fire and attacked the prison workers – Justin Smith, a prison officer, and Veronica Darden, a manager at a prison sewing plant – in an escape attempt.
Prior to Callahan’s death, it had been seven years since a prison officer had died as a result of an inmate assault.
Gov. Roy Cooper showed the right sense of urgency in meeting with his Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks and state prison officials the day after the deaths. Cooper said the number of officers in areas where inmates work will be increased, the prison work program at Pasquotank will be suspended and all such work programs will be reviewed.
Also on the agenda: better pay and working conditions for prison officers and other workers. There are personnel shortages in almost all the state’s prisons. In a regular business, that would mean more employees having to do more work, overtime, etc., but in a prison, it also means danger. A shortage of officers is, after all, seen by inmates as a chance to escape, and for those serving long terms for violent crimes, for example, the consequences of a failed escape, or even beating an officer, are considered.
In April, when Callahan was killed, a survey by the state found that one of every five positions for a correctional officer in that prison was empty.
A lobbyist for the State Employees Association of North Carolina said the state’s lawmakers had been pressed to improve benefits and salaries for correctional officers, but that nothing of significance has happened.
In addition, a Charlotte Observer series showed a prevalence of drug dealing and gang violence in the state’s prisons and, in some cases, prison officers who were aiding corruption.
It’s difficult to get the attention of lawmakers, of course, when it comes to spending more money on personnel at prisons. Legislators like to talk tough on crime, etc., but they’d like for prisons to be seen and not heard.
But the deaths of three people underline the hazards of working in a prison in almost any capacity and the importance of taking action to bolster staffing and security, and to do so quickly. The families of all prison workers, guards and others, must be extremely concerned in light of these incidents, and action – real action – is needed in memory of those who perished and to protect those still trying to do their jobs in the state’s prisons.