Rosie Anderson hoped that posting a video of the brutal attack would prompt state leaders to make prisons safer.
Anderson – a former correctional officer – is sitting alone in a mental health unit at Central Prison in Raleigh as the YouTube video begins.
She’s finishing the day’s paperwork and doesn’t see inmate Sammy Whittington, a convicted killer, walk up from behind until he is almost upon her. She turns just before he attacks.
Whittington throws Anderson to the ground. Then, he punches her in the face and head at least seven times. No one comes to help her for more than a minute.
“I thought that getting my video out,” Anderson recalls, “would open some eyes.”
Anderson, now 34, survived the 2015 prison attack.
Since then, others have not.
In April, authorities say, a convicted murderer at Bertie Correctional Institution set a fire, then beat Sgt. Meggan Callahan to death with a fire extinguisher that she had brought to douse the flames.
Then, on Oct. 12, prison employees Veronica Darden and Justin Smith were killed inside a sewing plant at Pasquotank Correctional Institution. Four inmates have been charged with killing them as part of a failed escape plan.
These prison assaults share a tragic similarity: All might have been prevented with better staffing, prison experts and officers say.
In prisons across North Carolina, severe staff shortages endanger officers and inmates, a Charlotte Observer investigation found.
At some prisons, including Pasquotank and Bertie, more than one of every four officer positions was vacant last year, state data show.
Dozens of current and former staff members around the state told the Observer about dangerous staff shortages. Some said that understaffing was so severe that a single officer must occasionally supervise more than 100 inmates.
The dangers and low pay of prison work have made it hard for state officials to attract and retain officers. To combat the problem, state officials say they’ve increased pay and expanded hiring programs. But the shortages persist.
Left with serious injuries, Anderson is pleading with state leaders to make changes that will protect prison officers.
In a letter to lawmakers, sent about two months before the deaths at Pasquotank, she asks: “How many more officers must die before eyes are opened?”
A dangerous staff shortage
Anderson had been a juvenile detention officer in Florida before coming to work in North Carolina in early 2015. Working as an adult correctional officer was a solid career move, she reasoned, a step toward her goal of becoming an instructor for the state Department of Public Safety.
But she didn’t realize how dangerous the job could be. Once every eight hours, on average, a state prison officer was assaulted last year.
And Central Prison, where she worked, is one of the state’s riskiest places for officers. On average, recent state data show, inmates there assaulted officers more than 100 times a year. In a lawsuit and numerous letters to the Observer, inmates at Central contend that officers beat them, too – often when they were handcuffed.
At 6:30 a.m. on Aug. 26, 2015, Anderson arrived at Central Prison for her regular 12-hour shift. The prison was short-staffed that day, as it often was, she said. The mental health unit where Anderson was working should have had at least 21 officers, she said, but it was short by at least five. State prison officials refused to provide that day’s staffing information to the Observer.
Many of the more than 200 inmates who lived in that unit suffered from serious psychiatric problems, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder – ailments that could make them unpredictable.
Anderson spent much of her day escorting inmates, delivering meal trays and relieving other officers who needed breaks.
At about 5:45 p.m., near the end of her shift, she was asked to take over the watch for another officer inside one of the mental health blocks.
I’ll be right back, she remembers the officer saying.
Alone and under attack
Anderson was the only officer working inside the 24-cell block. She was seated at a table, doing paperwork that needed to be turned in by the end of her shift.
That’s when Whittington approached.
He was serving a 16-year sentence for beating his wife to death with a pipe in 2003. He had been aggressive in prison, too. Twice, he assaulted staff members with sexual intent, prison records show. Five times, he set fires.
Anderson looked up and saw Whittington about six feet away, approaching her with his pants lowered and his genitals exposed.
Whittington grabbed Anderson by the neck and threw her to the ground. He straddled her and repeatedly punched her in the head and face, the prison video shows. Then he choked her and tried to sexually assault her.
One inmate standing nearby jumped up and down, waving his arm, trying to get the attention of another officer stationed in a control booth. It was that officer’s job to call for immediate backup if an officer was attacked.
Anderson said she briefly blacked out.
Then, for reasons that aren’t clear, Whittington got off of Anderson, 43 seconds after he’d begun to attack her.
About the same time, Anderson said, she regained consciousness. She stood and shot a stream of pepper spray into Whittington’s face, then backed away.
At 5:58 p.m. – about a minute and 15 seconds after the attack began – a dozen other officers entered the block. They had been standing just outside the door, waiting for the control booth officer to let them in.
Anderson collapsed to the floor and was taken by ambulance to WakeMed’s emergency department. There, she was lying on a hospital bed with a brace around her neck when she overheard doctors telling her husband that she had a severe concussion and inflammation of the brain. Later, doctors found the attack had caused additional problems: nerve damage in her back and broken bones in her hand.
For days, she said, she could barely walk.
“I feel victimized. I really do,” Anderson said. “If I had known this going in, I would never have taken this job. I wouldn’t put my life in danger.”
In August, the Observer asked state officials a series of questions about the attack – including whether they made any changes in response to the assault, and what Central Prison’s actual and recommended staffing levels were that day. The state refused to answer those questions.
But four experts told the the Observer that putting a second officer inside Anderson’s block likely would have prevented or shortened the attack.
“If you know you have a unit made up of mentally ill inmates, I think it’s unconscionable not to have a second officer there,” said Martin Horn, a former secretary of corrections in Pennsylvania who lectures at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “It takes less than a minute for an officer to be seriously injured – which is why having a second officer on the unit would be the best solution.”
Brian Dawe, executive director of the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network, said he believes “there’s a real good chance” that Whittington would not have attacked if a second officer had been on the floor with Anderson.
“One officer on a mental health ward with murderous inmates?” asked Dawe, whose group shares research to help prison officers. “Would you send your daughter in to work in that situation?”
David C. Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, and Jon Ozmint, former head of South Carolina’s prisons, also agreed that a second officer in the block likely would have helped protect Anderson.
Robert Marvin, a former officer who was working at Central Prison the day Anderson was assaulted, said that putting a second officer with her might have prevented the attack. He said the prison is so short-staffed, “it’s deadly.”
Marvin resigned from his prison job last year. He said he became fed up with the dangers, the low pay and what he sees as the prison system’s poor treatment of officers like Anderson.
“Seeing what happened to Rosie, that could happen to any other officer tomorrow,” Marvin said. “There’s so much in that prison that could kill you.”
‘Nobody seems to listen’
On the day Callahan died, she had four officers working with her, according to three staff members who were at the prison that day. That’s half the number the prison recommended, the staff members said. Inmate Craig Wissink, one of the roughly 250 inmates in Callahan’s unit, set a fire in a trash can and killed her when she responded, authorities say.
“They’re tremendously understaffed and it’s only getting worse,” said Sgt. Joe Gurganus, who was in charge of a nearby unit the day Callahan died.
Two other current and former staff members, who asked not to be named, agreed that Callahan’s unit had too few officers.
Said Dawe: “That’s clearly ridiculous staffing.”
At Pasquotank, just one prison officer oversaw more than 30 inmates inside the prison’s sewing plant on Oct. 12, according to two officers who responded to the crisis. Some of the inmates had recent convictions for murder and attempted murder, and they had access to potentially lethal tools.
Inmates stabbed employees with scissors and beat them with hammers, according to prison workers who called 911. Prison employees Darden and Smith died. Ten more were injured.
Horn said it appears the staffing inside the sewing plant was too thin.
“Ideally you’d like to have at least two officers to watch each other’s back or to sound the alarm faster,” Horn said. “… It would have made a difference.”
State officials did not answer questions about staffing levels at the two Eastern North Carolina prisons on the days of the attacks.
But they have acknowledged that the state faces significant staffing challenges. Statewide, about 16 percent of prison officer positions are vacant. Many of the large maximum-security prisons – including Bertie and Pasquotank – are located in rural areas, where recruiting can be difficult.
Officials say they are holding hiring events and partnering with schools and military bases to fill jobs. They say they’ve also made their hiring process more efficient, which has led to a 40 percent increase in the number of officers hired each month.
And they hope that a series of pay increases approved by the legislature in 2015 will boost recruiting. The raises brought the average salaries for officers at maximum-security prisons to about $38,000 – up from about $31,000 in 2015. But the current pay in North Carolina is still about $8,000 less than the national average for prison officers and jailers.
Anderson says she cried as she read about the latest deaths.
“It’s been two years since my attack, and there have been three deaths,” she said. “Nobody seems to listen.”
A call for help
Anderson said she continues to struggle with injuries from the attack.
She suffers from periodic bouts of vertigo so severe that “it feels like the ground is moving,” she said. Nerve damage in her back sometimes makes it difficult for her to walk or stand – and occasionally causes her to fall, she said.
For four months after the attack, Anderson went on medical leave. Then she tried to work a different job at Central Prison’s hospital. But after several months, the stress of it became too much for her, she said.
A doctor had told her that she could not work with inmates again because she could not risk another concussion and further psychological damage. Last November, the state Department of Public Safety informed her that it could not find another job for her that met her doctor’s restrictions.
These days, Anderson works occasionally as a nursing assistant, doing home visits in cases that don’t require much physical exertion. But, she said, that job provides just a fraction of what she used to earn, which was about $37,000 a year.
To support their family of five, Anderson and her husband – a night grocery store manager – have taken out loans. They’ve sold their television, their sound system and even some of their children’s computer games, Anderson said.
In early August, two years after the attack, Anderson reached a workers compensation settlement with the state. She wouldn’t disclose the amount, but said that it was less than her annual salary and will not begin to put an end to the family’s financial problems.
Last year, Whittington was convicted of assaulting Anderson. She obtained video of the attack from the prosecutor.
Anderson believes the state is also to blame because it failed to have adequate staffing. She also faults the officer who was supposed to keep an eye on her from a nearby control booth. It’s unclear where that officer was during the attack, why she didn’t let Anderson know an inmate was approaching, and why she didn’t send out an immediate call for help.
State officials say they’ve reviewed the incident and found that prison staff “responded per policy.”
In a written statement submitted to prison officials after the attack, Anderson contended that negligence on the part of the officer in the control booth “almost cost me my life.” Prison officials started investigating, Anderson said, but stopped about three weeks later, when the control booth officer resigned. She says prison officials never told her what went wrong that day or whether any changes were made to improve officer safety.
Anderson feels she has not received justice. But she is once again trying to get the attention of state leaders in hopes that she can help make prisons safer for other officers.
In her letter to North Carolina lawmakers, Anderson calls on the state to increase pay for officers and to be transparent about staffing inside the prisons. She ends with a question:
“How much more damage needs be done to individuals and their families before change is made?”