NC prison leaders ‘lost control,’ says lawmaker after inmates kill two employees

Following the recent deaths of two prison employees in his district and another from his hometown, Rep. Bob Steinburg is asking lawmakers to create a reform commission to investigate problems within the North Carolina prison system.

“I think they (state prison leaders) lost control,” said Steinburg, a Republican from Edenton. “Obviously, there is something wrong.”

Steinburg’s announcement comes less than a week after inmates killed two prison employees at Pasquotank Correctional Institution in eastern North Carolina.

Correctional officer Justin Smith, 35, and Correction Enterprises manager Veronica Darden, 50, were killed Oct. 12, when four inmates tried to escape from the prison’s sewing plant.

Ten other employees were hurt in the failed escape, which saw inmates wielding hammers and scissors, according to a prison worker who called 911. Two employees remain at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital in Virginia.

In April, an inmate is accused of killing Sgt. Meggan Callahan, 29, at Bertie Correctional Institution. Craig Wissink, who is charged with first-degree murder in Callahan’s death, set a fire and then beat Callahan with a fire extinguisher that she’d brought to douse the flames, authorities said.

“I was hoping that her death would serve as a catalyst for prison reform,” Steinburg said. “But I didn’t think I would be up on the House floor six months later talking about the same thing...I really do believe that this may finally be the watershed moment.”

Steinburg said he plans to discuss forming the commission with House Speaker Tim Moore on Friday – after Steinburg meets with several current and former department employees. The employees, Steinburg said, will discuss their concerns about N.C. prisons and how lawmakers could fix the problems.

If the commission is formed, Steinburg said he hopes it begins to meet before legislators return to Raleigh in January. He also hopes that the commission is given subpoena power – a tool that could ensure lawmakers receive information from prison workers who may otherwise be reluctant to talk because they fear retaliation.

One area lawmakers may investigate is department management, Steinburg said.

Other areas include officer training, pay, life insurance and safety.

But commission’s exact goal remains unclear.

“There could be modest reforms and tweaks to correct the system to massive reforms,” Steinburg said, adding “We cannot let this go away.”

Gavin Off: 704-358-6038