Mom of prison officer, allegedly beaten to death by an inmate, wonders if her death could have purpose

The mother of the prison sergeant killed at a North Carolina prison last month has a request for those who run the state’s prisons:

Please hire more officers and improve their training.

“My concern is maybe this wouldn’t have happened if there were enough people – and if the staff were truly qualified,” Wendy Callahan said.

Her 29-year-old daughter, Meggan Callahan, was beaten to death on April 26 as she responded to a fire at Bertie Correctional Institution. State officials say inmate Craig Wissink beat Callahan with the fire extinguisher that she’d brought to douse the flames.

State figures show that roughly one of every five correctional officer positions at the eastern North Carolina prison was vacant last month. Statewide, about 16 percent of officer positions are vacant, an Observer story showed.

“Maybe there’s a purpose to Meggan’s death,” said Wendy Callahan, who teaches classes on faith at a Catholic church in Edenton. “It’s for people to understand they need more help there.”

When Callahan was attacked, two other officers were nearby, according to Anthony Jernigan, who heads the State Bureau of Investigation office that covers northeastern North Carolina. One of those officers fell and hurt her knee when she went to Callahan’s defense, Jernigan said.

About 60 inmates were also near Callahan when she was attacked on April 26, Jernigan said.

Putting officers in danger

Callahan was a “funny, funny person” who loved playing pranks and making others laugh, her mother said. Wendy Callahan will never forget the day her daughter encased her car in Saran wrap.

But Callahan had a serious side, too, and she wanted a job where she could help and protect others.

Long before 2012, when Callahan was hired to work for the prisons, her mother suspected she might become a police officer or a soldier. Wendy Callahan recalls that when her daughter told her that she had been hired to work at a prison, “I was kind of relieved.” She thought that job would be safer.

But as Callahan gained experience, she and her mother soon learned that prison work was highly dangerous. Callahan told her mother that she and her fellow officers often found themselves vastly outnumbered by inmates. In one case, an inmate hit Callahan with a broom stick.

Once every eight hours, on average, a North Carolina prison officer was assaulted last year. Statewide, there were 1,160 assaults on state prison staff in 2016.

Wendy Callahan said she wonders whether better staffing would help prevent some of those assaults - and whether more officers will die if nothing changes.

“I just don’t want this to happen to another parent - or another child.”

To attract more officers to the profession, state leaders need to increase pay, she said. Officers at maximum security prisons earn an average of about $35,000 annually.

North Carolina prison leaders acknowledged that the state faces significant staffing challenges. Many of the large maximum-security prisons – including Bertie – are in rural areas, where recruiting can be difficult. But prison leaders say they are holding many hiring events and partnering with schools and military bases to fill jobs.

Better training is needed, too, Wendy Callahan said.

When new correctional officers are hired in North Carolina, they get a week-long orientation where they learn about prison policies. But many current and former officers interviewed by the Observer said it took months before they got a four-week basic training class, where they learned important skills such as how to defend themselves.

Wendy Callahan remembers her daughter telling her that most of the officers who worked for her had been on the job less than a year – and that one of them had not yet gotten basic training.

“Putting someone on the floor with 80 inmates when you haven’t had the proper training – that’s putting that person in danger,” Wendy Callahan said. “And it’s putting the inmates in danger.”

‘We need to fix it’

Wendy Callahan said that the investigators who are examining what happened on April 26 have asked her not to share much of what they told her, because they don’t want to jeopardize the criminal case.

But she said she learned that Wissink – the inmate who has been charged with first-degree murder in her daughter’s death – heated water in a microwave oven and threw it at her before beating her with the fire extinguisher.

One of the inmates ran toward Callahan to help her, but stopped before he got to her, her mother said. The inmate probably realized, she said, “that he could get hurt” if he tried to stop the attack.

Wendy Callahan said she does not want to see Wissink get the death penalty for her daughter’s death.

“I don’t have the right to take his life for what he did. It’s not my choice,” she said. “It’s God’s decision.”

But she does want to see state prison leaders change the system.

“I’m not going to let Meggan die in vain,” her mother said. “Hopefully people will realize there really is an issue here. There is a problem. And we need to fix it.”

Staff Writer Gavin Off contributed.

Ames Alexander: 704-358-5060, @amesalex