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Steinburg calls prison system 'disaster'

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State Rep. Bob Steinburg , R-Chowan and a Republican candidate for state Senate District 1, speaks at a Currituck GOP candidates forum at Eagle Creek Golf Club, Wednesday.

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Sunday, April 22, 2018

CURRITUCK – State Rep. Bob Steinburg is calling for the dismissals of state Public Safety Director Erik Hooks and state Director of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter, saying he believes North Carolina's prison system is "an absolute, unmitigated disaster."

Steinburg, R-Chowan, and Dare County businessman Clark Twiddy are competing for the Republican nomination in state Senate District 1, to be decided in the May 8 primary election. The winner will face the Democratic candidate, Washington County Commissioner Cole Phelps, in the Nov. 6 general election.

Steinburg blasted Hooks and Lassiter in remarks before approximately 50 people at a Currituck County GOP candidates forum in Moyock on Wednesday evening.

"We need total reform from the top down – and let's correct this thing and save the lives of our friends and neighbors and even the inmates," Steinburg said.

Hooks, in a statement relayed via N.C. Public Safety spokesman Jerry Higgins, said on Friday afternoon, “We are working with legislators from both parties to make our prisons safer – and we have to remain focused on key steps we can take to do that.”

Steinburg has been vocal about North Carolina's prison system since the Oct. 12 riot at Pasquotank Correctional Institution northwest of Elizabeth City. The riot quickly resulted in the deaths of two workers at the prison and the eventual deaths of two more workers.

Steinburg told the Currituck GOP gathering of Public Safety Director Hooks, "He needs to go."

Steinburg said he believes Hooks is "a nice guy," but he said he believes Hooks is "absolutely in over his head."

"He has never supervised more than 12 people – and now here he is at a department of 9,000-10,000 people," Steinburg said. "He clearly does not have a clue."

Steinburg also told the Currituck GOP gathering Lassiter needs to be gotten rid of as the prisons director.

"All I will say to you about him is just Google him and look at his record within the prison system – and then ask yourself, 'How in Sam Hill did this guy ever get in this position?'" Steinburg said.

Steinburg said he has received boxes of letters, not just from guards, but also from staffers, retired superintendents and inmates.

"We’ve got a situation where nobody in the rank-and-file trusts management – and they have good reason not to trust them," he said.

He argued he has been at the forefront of leading the charge to try to secure prison reform in the nation because such facilities across the country are in rough shape.

"We have an opportunity here in North Carolina,” he said. “If we do what is right, we can set the template for what the rest of the nation must do to reform our prisons."

At the same time, Steinburg said he believes North Carolina is "ripe" for something similar to the April 16 riot at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina. Seven inmates lost their lives and 17 more inmates were injured.

Steinburg said he doesn't believe the situation is a matter of, "Are we going to have another incident?" Rather, he said he believes the situation is a matter of, "When are we going to have the incident and where is the incident going to happen?"

The Oct. 12 riot at Pasquotank Correctional claimed the lives of Correction Enterprises Manager Veronica “Ronnie” Darden, 50, corrections officers Justin Smith, 35, and Wendy Shannon, 49, and maintenance mechanic Geoffrey Howe, 31.

Correction Enterprises had a sewing plant inside the prison. Darden was a former corrections officer and Smith provided security in the Correction Enterprises part of the building.

Law enforcement officials have said four inmates intentionally set a fire inside the sewing plant as a diversion while they attempted to escape. The four inmates were indicted on first-degree murder charges in connection with the deaths and each will be facing the death penalty if jurors find each committed capital murder.

Meantime, the N.C. Department of Labor is fining Pasquotank Correctional Institution and Correction Enterprises $7,000 each, this for failing to provide a safe workplace to employees injured and killed as a result of what occurred.

During Wednesday's GOP gathering in Currituck, the subject of North Carolina's prison system came up when Steinburg and Twiddy were asked a question in the context of the riot at Pasquotank Correctional.

The question was about issues about the adequate staffing of the prison system and what proposals or specific reforms Steinburg and Twiddy would bring to lessen the problems surrounding the system.

Twiddy told the GOP gathering what happened at Pasquotank Correctional was "an awful tragedy" and said "our hearts go out to all the families that are affected by that."

Twiddy went to state he believes it's always a good conversation to talk about what is the right level of staffing for the prison system.

"Does more staffing solve the problem? What’s the root cause of some of those problems? And then, what are we willing to pay for at the right taxpayer level, because ultimately you and I have to solve that problem," Twiddy said.

Twiddy said he and others would "bring all the right people in the room" and "draw a circle that's as big as possible" and get them in, with all of their experiences.

"If you bring the smartest people together, the right ideas will bubble up," he said.

As for specifics, Twiddy said he would seek feedback from the people who are closest to the matter and – noting the presence of lawmen at the Currituck GOP gathering – get feedback from sheriffs and those working within the prison system.

"And then let's go out and talk to our taxpayers and our other folks across the region to talk about, 'What can we do in one place that translates to another?'" he said.

"So, I think we have to communicate and collaborate as a group to solve those problems. And we have to have an honest conversation of what's occurring and why – and how to prevent it," he said.

Twiddy said he believes questions need to be answered about what happened at Pasquotank Correctional. He said they include whether there was a systemic issue going on or whether what happened on Oct. 12 was a one-time tragedy.

"So, I think it's tough to come up with a specific answer without bringing everybody in the room," Twiddy said.

Twiddy was the first of the two District 1 GOP Senate candidates at the Currituck GOP forum to be asked the question about the prison system.

Twiddy's response prompted Steinburg to tell the gathering, "It's interesting that my opponent's position has really evolved here over the campaign, because a few months ago in The Daily Advance, in the aftermath of this crisis, he said there was absolutely nothing wrong with prison management, that everything was fine."

"And believe me that is indeed not the case. The prison system is an absolute, unmitigated disaster – and I mean a disaster," Steinburg said.

Steinburg was referring to story published in December, in which Twiddy told a reporter, "I am confident that our prisons are generally well-managed."

The story included focusing on a claim by Steinburg that state prison management often operates as a "closed circle" or a "secret society," allowing them to foil oversight and accountability from system officials.

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