NC prison sewing plant to close following killings of 2 employees

Police cars cluster outside Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City, N.C. on Oct. 12 following attacks that killed two employees.
Police cars cluster outside Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City, N.C. on Oct. 12 following attacks that killed two employees. AP

Responding to attacks that killed two employees at Pasquotank Correctional Institution last week, North Carolina’s public safety chief said Friday that he will permanently shut down the prison’s sewing plant.

That was one of several actions that Department of Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks announced following the assaults that killed prison employees Veronica Darden and Justin Smith. The Oct. 12 attacks also injured 10 other employees, including two who, according to sources, remain in critical condition.

Law enforcement authorities say four inmates were working inside the prison’s sewing plant on Oct. 12 when they attacked the employees in a failed effort to escape.

The inmates beat prison employees with hammers and stabbed them with scissors, according to one prison worker who called 911.

Earlier on Friday, authorities who are investigating the killings announced that they had filed first-degree murder charges against four inmates.

One of those inmates was in prison for shooting a state trooper in the face. Another had repeatedly stabbed an Army sergeant’s wife with a kitchen knife. A third was incarcerated for shooting a co-worker to death behind a west Charlotte gas station.

Hooks said in a statement Friday that his department would conduct a thorough review of all inmates assigned to work for Correction Enterprises, which puts about 2,500 N.C. inmates to work inside prison industrial plants.

Some inmates who have been convicted of “assaultive” crimes will be suspended from jobs that involve the use of cutting and “impact” tools, Hooks said.

Inmates convicted of committing violent crimes against law enforcement or government officials also won’t be given access to such tools unless they get approval from prison leaders, the secretary said.

Hooks said he is also:

▪ Asking the National Institute of Corrections – a federal agency that provides help and information to prison leaders – to conduct an independent review of the safety and security operations at Pasquotank Correctional. Among other things, that study will look at training, staffing patterns and how inmates are assessed for job placements.

▪ Organizing an advisory committee to look for “additional technology and individual devices” that could improve prison safety.

“As we continue to mourn our colleagues and friends and pray for those critically injured, we not only must seek justice for the perpetrators, we are taking steps to try to ensure that this sort of tragedy never happens again,” Hooks said.

“I am committed to conducting a complete and thorough investigation of the events that occurred to make the prison environment safer for our staff, visitors to our facilities and the inmates we house.”

It has been a deadly year for the state’s prison workers.

At Bertie Correctional Institution, another eastern North Carolina 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.

Earlier this week, Rep. Bob Steinburg asked lawmakers to form a prison review commission to investigate how the prisons are run.

He said on Friday that the problems with the state’s prisons go beyond Pasquotank, Bertie and Correction Enterprises.

“Obviously, they're trying to address the situation,” said Steinburg, who represents Pasquotank County. “But none of what I've heard is addressing what some feel might be the greater concern, and that is there is no confidence at all in David Guice as chief deputy secretary, Kenneth Lassiter (director of prisons) or Erik Hooks … That’s what I’m hearing.”

Steinburg said he has heard those concerns from roughly 20 current and former prison employees – some of whom he met with Friday. They've had enough, he said.

“The one thing they're not looking into is themselves,” Steinburg said.

Ames Alexander: 704-358-5060, @amesalex

Gavin Off: 704-358-6038