CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) – North Carolina corrections employees who work at prisons across the state are speaking out about the dangerous working environment inside the state’s prisons in the wake of a deadly prison fire and attempted escape that has left three corrections officers dead.
Veronica Darden, Justin Smith and Wendy Shannon died after inmates set a fire in a portion of the Pasquotank Correctional Institution in northeastern North Carolina in early October. Darden and Smith died in the immediate after math of the fire. Shannon died several weeks later of injuries sustained in the attempted prison escape. Nine other prison employees were injured in the incident.
In April, Sergeant Meggan Callahan, a corrections officer at the Bertie Correctional Institution, was killed by an inmate who, an autopsy says, scalded her with boiling water and beat her to death with a fire hydrant.
A total of four North Carolina corrections officers have died on duty in 2017 and prison employees say they fear another major incident could happen at another state prison at any time.
WBTV spoke with two corrections employees in the weeks following the attempted prison escape in October.
Both employees wanted to speak about what they consider to be unsafe conditions inside the state’s prisons but asked their identities be hidden out of fear they would lose their jobs if state corrections officials knew they were blowing the whistle.
“It’s a war zone every time you step in there,” one corrections employee, who has worked in the state’s prisons since the early 1990s and currently works in an administrative role, said.
“A lot of things need to be changed and they need to do it quickly.
A report released by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety in 2016 showed 845 inmates were charged with assaulting a corrections officer. That averages out to more than two assaults a day.
The second corrections employee WBTV talked with, a prison guard who has spent decades working in prisons, said it’s only a matter of time before something worse happens inside a state prison.
“It’s always been said that the inmates allow us to work there because we’re outnumbered to severely,” he said.
Erik Hooks, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, issued the following statement in response to a request for comment from WBTV:
The safety of our employees is my top priority here at the Department of Public Safety. I understand the concerns our employees have, especially considering the horrific incident at Pasquotank Correctional Institution.
However, I want all our employees to share any concerns they may have with me without fear of any retaliation or retribution. I want to address concerns employees may have regarding working in prisons. I encourage employees to email me with any specific issues, so our staff can evaluate and work on solutions to correct any problems. Also, I have already met, and will meet, with more staff around the state soon to address concerns.
We began a thorough review of policies and procedures after the recent incident at Pasquotank CI and will increase safety measures where necessary. Since that incident on Oct. 12, I initiated the following actions:
- Permanently shut down operations at the Pasquotank sewing plant.
- Requested the National Institute of Corrections conduct an independent and comprehensive review of the safety and security operations at Pasquotank Correctional Institution, as well as all aspects of Correction
- Enterprises’ safety protocols to include staffing patterns, inmate worker placement assessments, training and operational procedures.
- Began conducting a thorough review of all inmates currently assigned to work in Correction Enterprises operations. We are looking at suspending inmates with convictions for assaultive crimes from participation in Correction Enterprises operations that involve the use of cutting and/or impact tools until further risk assessments can be completed. Also, any inmate with convictions of a violent crime against a government official and/or law enforcement will not be able to work at a position that utilizes or provides access to cutting and/or impact tools without expressed approval of the Director of Prisons Office.
- Organize an advisory committee to consider and recommend additional technology and individual devices to enhance the safety and security of prison and Correction Enterprises staff, prison facilities and plant operations.
We are also:
- Reviewing the safety of all Corrections Enterprises operations at all state prisons.
- Increasing the number of correctional officers who provide security in Correction Enterprises areas, and increasing the number of rounds by the officer in charge within those areas until we can conduct a security review to ensure the safety of employees.
- Reviewing emergency procedures at all facilities to enhance safety and security.
- Conducting a complete facility search at Pasquotank Correctional Institution by 100 trained and well-equipped
- Prison Emergency Response Team members to look for evidence, as well as unrelated contraband that may be in the facility.”
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