The deaths of two prison employees during an attempted escape should shine light on poor working conditions and benefits at prisons all around North Carolina, the group representing state workers said Friday.
Justin Smith, a correctional officer, and Veronica Darden, a manager of Correction Enterprises, died Thursday at Pasquotank Correctional Institute in Elizabeth City after officials said inmates set fires and attacked at least one employee with a hammer.
They weren’t the first correctional employees killed on the job this year; Meggan Callahan was allegedly murdered by an inmate in April at a different prison, this one in Bertie County.
Ardis Watkins, the head lobbyist for the State Employees Association of North Carolina, said she and other SEANC officials asked the N.C. General Assembly to act after Callahan’s death to improve working conditions in prisons, mostly by offering better salary and benefits so that hard-to-fill guard jobs wouldn’t remain empty.
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But in the months since then, there has been no action, she said.
“You’re hearing about things like one officer who has 120 inmates he’s accountable for,” Watkins said. “We said this so much after Sgt. Callahan was murdered. This is going to keep happening.”
She said that in addition to some jobs remaining empty, other prison employees often skip work because they know their bosses can’t fire them, for fear of creating even more vacant positions that will be difficult to fill and stretching the remaining officers even thinner.
“They can’t address absenteeism because they can’t fire anyone since it’s so hard to hire new people,” Watkins said. “And that’s not something I hear only at some prisons. That’s all over the state.”
It’s unclear at the moment how well-staffed the Pasquotank prison was when the employees were killed.
Cooper announced Friday afternoon that he was temporarily suspending the work unit where the Pasquotank incident began. He said he would also order more staffing in other prisons’ work areas, and a safety review of prison work programs.
“While we are grateful for the officers’ work to prevent the inmates’ escape, we know our prisons must be made more secure, including for those who work there,” Cooper said.
Watkins said the state needs to spend more on training, too.
“In addition to the funding issues, there is not proper training,” she said. “It is going to take a big infusion of money from the General Assembly, along with the (Cooper) administration, to get this training done.”
Finally, she said, correctional officers need to be classified as law enforcement officers. That would give them better benefits and make the jobs easier to fill, she said.
The families of law enforcement officers in North Carolina who die in the line of duty can get between $50,000 and $333,604 in death benefits from the state or federal governments, according to the State Treasurer’s office.
Watkins also said that after Callahan was killed, Republican Senate leader Phil Berger referred to her on the Senate floor – mistakenly – as a law enforcement officer.
“In the eyes of the General Assembly and the general public, they are law enforcement officers,” she said. “But they do not get the same benefits since they are not.”
Recent raises for guards
House Speaker Tim Moore released a statement Friday saying that the state “grieves the terrible loss” of Smith and Darden.
“These brave individuals gave their lives to protect the public’s safety in North Carolina. We will honor their sacrifice on behalf of the citizens they served and offer heartfelt condolences to their friends and families,” Moore said.
Moore’s spokesman Joseph Kyzer also said the state has made moves to help prisons recruit and retain employees. Starting in 2016, correctional officers began receiving extra pay for working in prisons with higher security levels.
Smith had worked for the state since 2012 and after a raise last month was making a $38,306 annual salary. Before then, he was making $36,138.
Darden, who was a manager and had worked for the state since 2006, was making $40,375 a year after receiving the same $1,000 raise in August that most state employees received.
Kyzer provided data showing that between those specific raises and the general raises given to all state employees, the state has spent an extra $60.8 million on raises for corrections officers in the last three fiscal years.
In 2013, the average correctional officer made $29,600 a year. Now that average ranges from $33,500 to $38,300 depending on the security level of the prison.
The state has also been spending “substantial resources” on getting help for prisoners with mental health issues, Kyzer said.
Responding Friday to the deaths, Cooper ordered all flags to be flown at half-staff through Monday. And Kyzer said the General Assembly was working with the families to find a time to honor them at the General Assembly.
In a written statement, SEANC President Stanley Drewery called for more.
“It’s past time for the state to give these heroes the resources, training and manpower to ensure that they return home safely,” he said.
Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran