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One year later: Prison safer, challenges remain

Prison Attempted Escape

Today marks the one-year anniversary of North Carolina's deadliest prison incident. Four inmates attempted to escape from Pasquotank Correctional Institute north of Elizabeth City on Oct. 12, 2017. Four PCI employees were beaten to death in the failed escape attempt.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Friday, October 12, 2018

One year ago today, Pasquotank Correctional Institution was the site of chaos and murder, as four inmates allegedly beat four correctional employees to death while trying to escape the prison.

The prison is safer now than then, but the challenges of recruiting correctional officers and controlling dangerous inmates remain, according to both prison leaders and elected officials.

“I wish I was in a position to guarantee” such an escape attempt will never happen again, said Reuben Young, chief deputy secretary of the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice, in an interview with The Daily Advance on Tuesday. “I think I would be disingenuous if I said that, because we work in a dangerous environment.”

The Oct. 12, 2017, escape attempt exposed those dangers, and continues driving the conversation about how to better recruit, train and equip correctional officers to handle convicted murderers and other violent prisoners.

It's also left a mark on local first responders, who deployed en masse to the prison the day of the incident and spent long hours investigating the scene and reassuring the public that no inmates escaped.

The escape attempt started just before 3 p.m. inside PCI's sewing plant, according to an internal prison report. Inmates Mikel Brady and Seth Frazier, imprisoned for attempted murder and burglary respectively, ambushed Correction Enterprises plant manager Veronica Darden as she exited a freight elevator. Inmates Wisezah Buckman and Jonathan Monk, also in prison for murder charges, then attacked Correctional Officer Justin Smith in a storeroom. The inmates then tried to distract officers with a false report of an incident elsewhere in the prison, and started a fire in the sewing plant.

After taking the freight elevator, the inmates attacked mechanic Geoffrey Howe and Correctional Officer Wendy Shannon. They fought staff and tried to scale prison fences to escape, but Monk and the others were captured before 3:30 p.m., based on the report.

Darden and Smith died that day from their injuries, while Howe and Shannon died days later while hospitalized. Eight other employees were hospitalized, but survived the attack.

Pasquotank County Sheriff Randy Cartwright served as incident commander for the numerous law enforcement agencies that responded to the scene.

“It was a very tragic case, one of the worst cases in my more-than-30-year career,” Cartwright said.

Cartwright recalled he was heading to Pasquotank County High School when the first call came in. He was there within 10 minutes, he said, arriving after the inmates had already been captured. More than 70 officers from various agencies responded to the scene, many working long into the night to keep the area secure and investigate multiple crime scenes within the prison.

Officers also had to work to keep the public informed of the escape attempt — and quash rumors that inmates had escaped, Cartwright noted.

City Manager Rich Olson was at the scene as well. Though crediting Cartwright and Elizabeth City Police Chief Eddie Buffaloe for responding well to the scene, he recalled, “what surprised me was how chaotic the scene was.”

Olson explained that local officials sometimes lacked information or couldn't share what information they had with the public, as state officials wanted to control public updates. He also said it took a long time for prison officials to account for all of PCI's inmates — meaning law enforcement had to respond to false reports of escaped inmates.

Reflecting on what could be done better in future incidents, Cartwright said “the main thing probably is making sure all agencies are familiar with incident command.” Getting information out faster will also help, he said.

The four employees' deaths, which came months after the murder of Meggan Callahan at Bertie Correctional Institution, caused not only grief, but anger. Public outcry over the murders – and various reviews finding major security flaws and inadequate staffing – pressured the state not only to make prisons safer, but to hold their leadership accountable for deaths on their watch.

PCI went under lockdown for months, inmate volunteer labor programs remain suspended, and the sewing plant is permanently closed.

Young's predecessor as corrections' deputy secretary, David Guice, also stepped down just weeks after the attack, announcing an abrupt retirement. In the following months, an outside review of PCI found major security flaws — reassignments and suspensions soon followed it. Though correction officials never cited the report as causing the decisions, they announced the reassignment of Karen Brown, then director of Correction Enterprises, and the suspensions and investigations of PCI's former leaders, administrator Felix Taylor and deputy administrator Colbert Respass. Maury Correctional Institution administrator Dennis Daniels took over for them, becoming Pasquotank's permanent director with strong, public praise from his boss, Director of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter.

Those moves only did so much to placate critics of the prison system, among them state Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, who said in an interview Thursday he still has “no confidence” in Lassiter, Young, or their boss, Department of Public Safety Director Erik Hooks. He said rank-and-file correctional employees also have “zero” confidence in them, and he reiterated his belief that DPS and the corrections division need new leadership.

Steinburg also said correctional officers need significant raises, above those lawmakers already granted earlier this year, to attract and keep them.

State Rep. Howard Hunter III, D-Hertford, has similarly said correctional officers' pay is too low to attract people to the risky profession, citing vacancies at Bertie Correctional Institution.

However, PCI has suffered only minor incidents since the Oct. 12 attack, including an assault of a correctional officer in March and a brief escape of a minimum custody, or lower-risk, inmate in June.

Asked about progress at PCI on Tuesday, Young said the vacancy rate remains a concern; finding correctional officers is a struggle nationwide, he added.

There were vacancies in 67 of 264 correctional officer positions at PCI as of Sept. 30, DPS spokesman Jerry Higgins reported in a followup email Thursday. That's compared to 75 vacancies in 266 officer positions about a year ago, he added.

PCI today also has 677 inmates today, he reported, versus about 700 a year ago, based on prior reports. Notably, the four inmates involved in the attack were transferred to other prisons shortly after the attack.

Young said DPS has worked to better prepare correctional officers since the attack. Training is improved — and no officer is allowed to guard inmates without at least four weeks' training, he said. DPS has also invested in more stab-resistant shirts, batons, more security cameras and other measures, he said.

Asked what he'd ask the General Assembly for further help with, Young said employee retention remains challenging. That includes not only recruiting new officers, he said, but keeping experienced ones. He did not directly call for additional raises, but said corrections wants to offer “competitive” salaries for officers.

Higgins reported that, after 4 percent raises lawmakers granted this year, the average starting pay for a correctional officer is $34,759, up from $33,502.

Though prison reform may be a long time coming, some resolution for victims' families may come sooner. District Attorney Andrew Womble said Thursday that, while he has no court dates set yet for the inmates accused of the murders, he said he expects to secure some verdicts this year. He’s seeking the death penalty in all cases.

Womble said he's trying the cases separately but starting with Brady, citing his “culpability” in the attacks.

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