Lawmakers seek prison reforms

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State Rep. Bob Steinburg

Prison Attempted Escape

By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

In the wake of last week’s deadly attack on employees at Pasquotank Correctional Institution, area lawmakers are calling for an evaluation of prison programming and seeking reforms ranging from increased staffing and better pay to larger death benefits for the families of correctional staff.

State Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, said he took to the House floor on Tuesday to discuss the deaths and injuries to Pasquotank Correctional Institution staff last Thursday and the need for reform to the state prison system.

"I really have a lot of passion about this issue," Steinburg said.

The investigation, meanwhile, into the deaths of Correctional Enterprises Manager Veronica Darden and Correctional Officer Justin Smith continues. Both Darden, who supervised and trained inmates working in the sewing plant at Pasquotank Correctional Institution, and Smith, who provided security in the sewing plant, were killed in last Thursday's attempted prison break by inmates.

Prison officials have said Darden and Smith were killed and 10 other officers were injured, three critically, in an attempt by four inmates to break out of the prison. No inmates escaped and all four who tried have been transferred to Polk Correctional Center in Butner, prison officials said.

None of the four have been charged yet in the deaths of Darden and Smith or for causing the injuries to other officers. Until those charges are filed, the inmates’ names will not be released, a prison spokeswoman said Monday.

The deaths of Darden and Smith follow the death of a third correctional officer, Meggan Callahan, who was killed in the line of duty at Bertie Correctional Institution in April. Steinburg recalled that on the day the House honored Callahan, an Edenton resident and sergeant at the Bertie prison, he said on the House floor that he hoped her murder would be a catalyst for reform at the Division of Prisons.  

"That was in April, and here we are in October and last Thursday we had two more employees murdered," Steinburg said.

Steinburg, who represents Chowan and a part of Pasquotank County, said he will be meeting on Friday with officials from the N.C. Department of Public Safety’s Division of Adult Prisons and Juvenile Justice who work in the eastern part of the state to put together recommendations for reform.

Steinburg also said he has asked House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, to form a legislative task force on prison reform.

Steinburg said his address to the House Tuesday mentioned "the need to do something in a very big way" to address longstanding problems within the Division of Prisons. Among the issues Steinburg said need addressing include:

* increasing the death benefit for corrections officers from $50,000 to $100,000, and making the increase retroactive for the families of Callahan, Darden and Smith.

* safety, equipment and training issues;

* management’s treatment of employees;

* salary issues and physical fitness issues.

Noting that families of law enforcement officers now get a $100,000 death benefit, Steinburg said there is not necessarily that much of a difference in the risk between what they do and what correctional officers do. Plus, corrections officers "have a big target on their back" from the time they clock in at the prison until they leave, he said.

Steinburg claims prison management’s treatment of employees also has destroyed morale among prison staff. Specifically, he said, inmates seem to have more rights and privileges than officers, and that when any complaint is made against an officer by an inmate the benefit of the doubt seems to go to the inmate, adding "that has been a real problem."

Steinburg said he hopes the legislative task force will have subpoena power so that people can speak freely without fear of reprisal and that lawmakers can discover what's really going on within the Division of Prisons.

Because of things that have been allowed to happen within the prison system, a small percentage of inmates have become extremely aggressive, Steinburg claims.

"I think that we are now paying the price," he said. "This can't continue."

State Rep. Howard Hunter, D-Hertford, said he fully supports Steinburg's call for a legislative task force.

"I agree with that 100 percent," Hunter said, noting that deaths of Callahan, Darden and Smith had all occurred at prisons located within his district.

Hunter said he publicly extended his condolences to the families of the employees who lost their lives and those who were wounded. He said he also sent letters to the families of Darden and Smith.

Hunter said he has heard "some street talk" that inmates are running the state’s prisons, but he doesn’t think that's true. He does believe the situation within the prisons needs to be looked at very closely, Hunter said.

"We need some help in our prisons," he said.

Better pay and better training are among the things that are needed, according to Hunter.

Hunter said he believes legislators want to act on reform.

"I think the House side does," Hunter said. "I can't speak for the Senate side."

Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Northampton, whose district that includes Edenton, noted the General Assembly has allocated funding to alleviate understaffing at some prisons, but she said there’s still a ways to go before all prisons are fully staffed.

“That impacts safety,” she said, referring understaffing at prisons.

Smith-Ingram said she supports the review of prison operations already underway by the Department of Public Safety and said she hopes that review will consider best practices that have been identified in recent reform efforts in other states such as Washington and South Carolina. The review also needs to identify what changes, if any, need to be made in prison programming and operation of prison enterprises, she said.

“From the outside looking in I don’t have the expertise to make that call,” Smith-Ingram said.

Smith-Ingram said the Senate honored Smith and Darden Tuesday just before adjourning and she called on her Senate colleagues at that time to support reform within the Division of Prisons, based on best practices identified in other states.

“We are praying and we need to put some legs on those prayers,” Smith-Ingram said.

State Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, whose district includes Pasquotank, said in a statement that the state “must do all that we can to protect our hard-working and valuable correctional officers.”

He said that since 2015 state lawmakers have “taken substantial action” to boost correctional officer pay, undertaking a three-year, $60 million “spending commitment” to raise annual salaries based on the custody level of the inmates they guard. 

Cook also pointed to legislation passed in the 2015 session that allows correctional staff to carry a concealed weapon when off duty. He described the legislation as “increased protections” for correctional staff “from the dangers they face day-in and day-out.”

Cook also noted that the N.C. Department of Public Safety is working to enhance training for correctional officers and that existing resources are being redirected to “take a new approach” when it comes to providing basic training for newly hired officers. 

“The N.C. Dept. of Public Safety has thousands of Correction employees who come to work every day committed to serving honorably and professionally with a desire to make a positive difference in someone’s life,” he said. “We are committed to assisting DPS and will continue to assess the situation as we get prepared for the short session.”