First, complete prison reviews already underway


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Prisons are dangerous places to be, regardless of whether you live in one as an inmate or work at one as an employee. Our region, which is home to several large state prisons as well as a federal prison facility in Hertford County, has had two grim reminders of that fact in just the past six months.

The first came in April, when Meggan Callahan, a correctional sergeant from Edenton, was brutally beaten to death with a fire extinguisher by an inmate at Bertie Correctional Institution. The second came only 10 days ago, when two employees at Pasquotank Correctional Institution, N.C. Corrections Enterprise Manager Veronica Darden and correctional officer Justin Smith, were murdered by four inmates wielding hammers and scissors, attempting what ended up being a failed prison escape. Both Darden and Smith in fact are being remembered this weekend at large public funerals at Elizabeth City State University by Gov. Roy Cooper and hundreds of prison workers and other law enforcement officials from across the state. 

The inmates responsible for the murders of Callahan, Darden and Smith will be dealt with by the state’s judicial system. The larger question in the wake of their murders, however, is whether our prisons remain safe enough for average citizens like Callahan, Darden and Smith to work in, and by extension, safe enough for the thousands of inmates sentenced to them by our judicial system.

Spurred by the murders of Darden and Smith, top state officials have already taken a number of steps they say are designed to improve safety at Pasquotank Correctional Institution. State Public Safety Secretary Erik A. Hooks has asked for a review of PCI’s safety and security by the National Institute of Corrections, an agency funded by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to develop best operational practices for prisons and professional training standards for prison staff.

Hooks also wants the NCI to review the operations of Correction Enterprises, a division of the state prison system created to provide opportunities for inmates to learn job skills they can use upon release. Inmates at 32 Correction Enterprise facilities at prisons across the state produce everything from clothing and eyeglass frames to furniture, metal grills and metal signs. Both Darden and Smith worked in one of these Correction Enterprise facilities, a sewing plant at PCI. Darden in fact was the sewing plant’s manager and Smith provided security for both staff and the 30-some inmates who worked in the plant making embroidered items like safety vests.

Hooks has ordered the sewing plant at PCI permanently shut down. He also wants a review of all inmates assigned to work for Correction Enterprises; those convicted of crimes involving assault will be suspended from work assignments that involve cutting and other tools that could be used as weapons. And those convicted of a violent crime against a law enforcement officer will be banned from such work in the future. All four of the inmates charged in Darden’s and Smith’s murders in fact had a past history of violent crime, including one convicted of shooting a state trooper.

Hooks also is organizing a panel within Public Safety’s divisions to look at ways to add more technology at prisons to improve their safety. 

While these are positive steps, state Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, doesn’t think they go far enough. Steinburg, who says he began raising alarms following Callahan’s death, believes the entire prison system needs a safety review, calling the alleged safety lapses that led to the deaths of three corrections employees in his House district the “tip of the iceberg.”

Steinburg is calling for formation of a legislative task force with subpoena power to investigate the prison system and urge reforms. Some of the areas Steinburg says need immediate attention are the pay of correctional staff; staff training, equipment and physical fitness; and the death benefit prison employees’ families receive if they’re killed in the line of duty. Currently families of prison staff receive a $50,000 death benefit; the families of other law enforcement officers receive a $100,000 benefit.  

Steinburg, who says he’s talked to some 20 current Division of Prison employees, also claims the prison system has management problems. He says morale is low among prison staff because inmates seem to have more rights and privileges than officers, and prison managers tend to side with inmates when a complaint is made against an officer. Steinburg also claims, based on these conversations with prison employees, that top prison officials have created an environment in which employees feel they’re never right and they can’t speak up without fear of being fired. Steinburg also claims prison staff have lost confidence in top Public Safety and prison officials.

Some of these issues Steinburg raises merit serious attention. If there aren’t enough correctional officers to safely staff our prisons, lawmakers need to appropriate more money to ensure there are. If correctional officers aren’t paid enough — the maximum salary at maximum security prisons in North Carolina is $35,000, far below the national average of $47,000 — lawmakers need to do what it takes to boost their pay. If officers aren’t receiving enough training — currently many receive only a week of orientation before they actually start work — that too must change. And certainly the death benefit for the families of courageous people like Megghan Callahan, Veronica Darden and Justin Smith needs to be on par with that of other law enforcement agencies.

We don’t think forming a legislative task force to essentially look into prison employee grievances is the answer, however. Such a move could in fact end up distracting attention away from another serious investigation of other problems plaguing our state’s prison system.

Absent from Steinburg’s call for legislative review of prison employee safety is any mention of the review of the prison system that’s already underway. That review was initiated by Public Safety officials this summer in response to a series of articles in the Charlotte Observer about widespread corruption problems in the prisons — problems largely caused by prison employees. The Observer’s stories detailed how at least 70 prison employees have been charged with crimes inside prisons since 2012; how more than 50 employees have been charged with bringing contraband into prisons in the past five years, especially cellphones and drugs; and how the prison system has exercised poor vetting procedures when hiring correctional officers, bringing in some with past histories of crime and violence.

State lawmakers in fact are already requiring, as part of this year’s state budget, the Department of Public Safety to answer a number of questions raised by the Charlotte Observer series. Lawmakers want to know, for example, how many prison employees have been fired or disciplined since 2012; how many employees have been charged with crimes while working at a prison; the process the prisons use for hiring employees; how long officers are on the job before they receive basic training; and what prison officials are doing to stop the influx of contraband.

We think the reviews already underway — both the one looking at safety and security Public Safety has asked the NIC to conduct and the one Public Safety is itself is performing on employee corruption — should go forward and be completed before lawmakers arbitrarily start their own investigation. To do otherwise would smack of political meddling: the legislature is led by Republicans; the prison system answers to Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat.

Prisons are dangerous places to live and work. We do need to make them safer for both inmates and employees. We should trust our prison professionals to come up with recommendations for doing this before other measures are taken.