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Prisons seek independent review of Pasquotank prison

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State Rep. Bob Steinburg

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By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Friday, October 20, 2017

In the wake of last week's failed inmate escape attempt that claimed the lives of two Pasquotank Correctional Institution employees, the N.C. Department of Public Safety has called for an independent review of safety and security operations at the prison.

Public Safety Secretary Erik A. Hooks said he would seek the review by the National Institute of Corrections, among other actions designed to improve safety in the prison system.

Despite those actions, state Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, continued to call Friday for creation of a legislative review committee to conduct its own review of the state prison system.

"I'm glad that they are looking into these things," Steinburg said of Hooks’ actions. "They need to be looked into."

But Steinburg said he believes the entire prison system needs to be looked into, since the safety issues go beyond this year's fatal inmate attacks on correctional staff at the Bertie and Pasquotank prisons.

"That's the tip of the iceberg," Steinburg said, adding "this onion needs to be peeled back further."

Two employees were killed and several others injured, three critically, in a failed escape attempt at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution on Oct. 12. Inmates started a fire in the prison's sewing plant, apparently to divert prison employees’ attention as they attempted to escape over the prison’s fences.

During the incident, correctional officer Justin Smith, 35, and N.C. Corrections Enterprise Manager Veronica Darden, 50, were killed and 10 other prison workers were injured. 

Four inmates have been charged with two counts each of first-degree murder in connection with Smith’s and Darden’s deaths. The inmates include 28-year-old Mikel Brady, 29-year-old Wisezah D. Buckman, 30-year-old Jonathan M. Monk and 33-year-old Seth J. Frazier.

Because two of the injured prison employees remain in critical condition at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, law enforcement officials say additional charges may be filed.

Besides calling for the National Institute of Corrections’ review of the Pasquotank Correctional Institution, Hooks also announced a number of other moves Friday. They include:

* Shutting down operations at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution’s sewing plant permanently

* Conducting a thorough review of all inmates currently assigned to work in Correction Enterprises operations, with "a specific set of inmates with convictions for assaultive crimes" suspended from participation in enterprise operations that involve the use of cutting or impact tools until further risk assessments can be completed, and those convicted of a violent crime against a law enforcement officer or other government official ineligible for any work assignment with access to cutting or impact tools "without expressed approval of the Director of Prisons Office."

* Organizing an advisory committee to recommend additional technology to enhance the safety and security of prison and Correction Enterprises staff.

Hooks expressed outrage that an inmate convicted of killing a state trooper — Brady — had been given access to tools that could be used as weapons.

“The deaths of two employees and severe injuries to others are horrifying,” Hooks said in a statement released by his office. “As a career law enforcement professional, I am outraged that someone who was convicted of attempting to murder a North Carolina State Highway Patrol trooper, as well as the other inmates who also were convicted of violent attacks, were allowed to work in an environment where they had access to tools that could be used as weapons. Correctional officers like law enforcement dedicate their lives to protecting and serving the public, and they must be safe in their jobs."

Steinburg said he thought Friday's announcement by the Department of Public Safety was a response to his call for the legislative review.

"I think we have struck a nerve," Steinburg said.

Steinburg said he met with a group of employees from the Division of Prisons Friday and said he heard concerns about overtime, lack of publicity regarding non-lethal assaults that take place in the prisons, and staffing decisions that are made on the basis of inaccurate information.

Those concerns are among the reasons he's pushing for the legislative review, he said.

"It needs to be done, I think, by the legislature," Steinburg said.

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