Two prison employees were killed and three others critically injured Thursday during an attempted escape at Pasquotank Correctional Institution.
The attempted breakout began around 3 p.m. when inmates set a fire in the prison’s sewing plant, where about 30 inmates produce embroidered logo items, safety vests and other items for government agencies and nonprofits, the state Department of Public Safety said.
Several inmates tried to escape as the fire was being extinguished, but they were unsuccessful, officials said. The eastern North Carolina prison was put on lockdown, with all inmates accounted for.
Inmates beat prison employees with hammers and stabbed them with scissors, according to one prison worker who called 911 Thursday.
DPS identified the employees who died as Correctional Officer Justin Smith, 35, who provided security in the sewing plant, and Correction Enterprises manager Veronica Darden, 50, who supervised inmates working in the plant.
Darden had been a Correction Enterprises employee since 2007 and previously worked as a correctional officer. Smith had worked as a correctional officer since 2012.
Three other prison employees remain hospitalized in critical condition, and seven others were treated and released, according to DPS.
“They were attacked by inmates,” Pasquotank County Sheriff Randy Cartwright told the Observer. “We collected several items found at the crime scene that could have been used as weapons.”
Cartwright said he believes inmates had a plan to escape – and to harm prison employees in the process. He also believes they started the fire as a diversion, he said.
“By starting that, it draws the eyes and focus onto something else so they can carry out their plan,” he said.
Over emergency radio, first responders could be heard describing the scene:
“Be advised, we do have a mass casualty incident. I have multiple patients,” said one. “Some of them are critical. … There are probably no more than two critical. But I have many, many patients.”
Another responder described the condition of an officer who was “struck multiple times with a hammer.”
At a news conference Friday afternoon, N.C. Deputy Director of Prisons Annie Harvey said it appears that four inmates were involved with the escape attempt. All were treated for injuries, then transferred to Polk Correctional Institution, north of Durham.
During a 911 call, an officer at the prison can be heard telling a dispatcher: “We’ve got inmates trying to jump over the fence.”
One inmate who tried to escape was pulled off a prison fence, prison spokesman Keith Acree said, “but no one made it outside the fence.”
Recordings of 911 calls released Friday provide a glimpse into the chaos that unfolded Thursday afternoon.
Fearing for his safety in a locked room, a worker told a dispatcher at least three prison officers had been beaten with hammers and stabbed with scissors. Inmates were running loose and a fire was burning.
He said he had grabbed a hammer and was prepared to defend himself.
Another caller said she was in a locked room near a loading dock, and that she could see through a window that at least one officer was alive, but injured.
“I don’t know if he was attacked with a hammer or screw driver,” she said. “He was attacked with something.”
Another caller reported that at least three officers were down and that he believed they had been attacked with hammers and scissors. He said he was in a locked room in the maintenance department, close to the mayhem.
“If they start coming in here, I’ll have to fight,” the caller told the dispatcher.
At one point, the caller could be heard telling someone else that they need to be prepared to protect themselves.
“We all need to get together and be ready to fight,” the man said. “I’ve got me a hammer out. I’m ready.”
‘She loved her job’
Darden’s family still doesn’t know how she died, her husband, Eric Darden, said Friday. Authorities have not shared details with relatives, who remain stunned, he said.
“I cried all night long,” said Eric Darden, 49, Veronica’s husband of nine years. “I was hollering and talking to her.”
Veronica Darden worked in the prison system for 10 years, he said, and was proud of her work. Eric Darden said he worried about his wife’s safety at the prison. But he said his wife never complained to him about working conditions there.
“She never had an issue until now,” he said.
Veronica Darden and her husband raised three children, who are now in their 20s.
“She was loved by everyone,” Eric Darden said. “She loved her job.”
A perilous job
Like other prison workers, Darden and Smith had dangerous jobs. 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 – up from 1,136 the previous year, state figures show.
At Bertie Correctional Institution, about 60 miles to the southwest of Pasquotank, prison Sgt. Meggan Callahan was killed in April. Authorities say an inmate there set a fire in a trash can, then beat Callahan with the fire extinguisher that she had brought to douse the flames.
Prior to Callahan’s death, it had been seven years since the last North Carolina prison officer died as a result of an inmate assault.
Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday said in a statement that he had met with Secretary of Public Safety Erik Hooks and state prison leaders to discuss the incident and steps to improve security at state prisons.
“We are all shocked and horrified by this violent attack on prison employees and our thoughts continue to be with the victims and their loved ones. 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. “I’ve directed state prison officials to take immediate action to improve safety, including suspending the inmate work program at the site where the attack happened, increasing officers in areas where inmates work, and ordering a safety review of all inmate work programs.”
By early Friday afternoon, state officials had provided few details about the incident, so it was unclear how Darden and Smith died. No criminal charges have yet been filed against inmates.
Pasquotank Correctional – located about 50 miles south of Norfolk, Va., and near North Carolina’s Outer Banks – now houses about 730 adult, male felons in both high-security and minimum-custody buildings. Minimum-security prisoners work outside the walls on road crews for the county recycling department and performing other community labor.
The inmates who set the fire worked for Correction Enterprises, which employs approximately 2500 prisoners statewide. Correction Enterprises teaches job skills in 17 different industries at 31 plants.
Inmate industrial plants are common nationally.
“They do tend to be more dangerous from the standpoint that access to potential weapons is greatly increased,” said Brian Dawe, CEO of the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network, an advocacy group for officers. “However most inmates who are allowed to work in those shops have generally been well-behaved and have been able to adjust to the system. They are usually free from any recent infractions.”
Dawe said he’s unsure what went wrong at Pasquotank, but noted that no inmates escaped. “The (employees) gave their lives protecting all of ours,” he said.
At Pasquotank Correctional, 33 inmates reported to work at the sewing plant Thursday, Acree said. When the chaos erupted, dozens of law enforcement officers responded. Cartwright said that at one point on Thursday afternoon, more than 200 law enforcement officers were near the prison.
Both the FBI and SBI will assist with the investigation, Cartwright said.
At Friday’s news conference, Harvey noted that prison officers don’t get the same respect that most law enforcement officers receive – even though they, too, put their lives on the line.
“You have professionals who work in these facilities who are willing to give their lives to make it safe for the public,” Harvey said. “And that’s what these employees did.”