Rising death toll prompts call for ‘top to bottom’ review of NC prisons

As the death toll from this year’s prison attacks rises to four, a North Carolina lawmaker has renewed his call for a sweeping investigation into problems dogging the state’s prisons.

Prison officer Wendy Shannon died Monday night as a result of injuries suffered during an escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Institution on Oct. 12. Two other prison workers – Veronica Darden and Justin Smith – also died in the attacks. And on April 26, a separate assault killed Sgt. Meggan Callahan at Bertie Correctional Institution, another Eastern North Carolina prison.

Rep. Bob Steinburg, whose district includes Pasquotank County, has called for a legislative commission that would review prison management, as well as officer training, pay and safety.

“The General Assembly needs to look into this,” Steinburg said Tuesday. “I don’t think we should be looking at this just as a way to help prevent incidents like this from happening again. We need to be charged with the task of creating prison reform from top to bottom.”

Steinburg, a Republican from Edenton, had initially called for a review soon after the Oct. 12 attacks.

Joseph Kyzer, spokesman for House Speaker Tim Moore, said House leaders are considering “all options for a comprehensive review of safety and management policies.”

He said the possibility of a commission would likely be discussed in a November meeting of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety.

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 panel 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.

He said the review could lead to tweaks to the prison system – or a massive overhaul.

“It’s even more apparent now than it was Friday that we need to do something, and we need to do it now,” Steinburg said.

Less than two weeks after the deaths at Pasquotank, David Guice, North Carolina’s prison leader, said he would be stepping down Nov. 1.

Escape plan

In October, more than 30 percent of the officer positions at Pasquotank were vacant, state Department of Public Safety records show.

Smith was the only officer overseeing more than 30 inmates in the prison’s sewing plant when violence erupted, sources told the Observer.

Wendy Shannon N.C. DPS
Justin Smith
Justin Smith N.C. DPS
Veronica Darden
Veronica Darden N.C. DPS

Inmates beat employees with hammers and stabbed them with scissors, according to prison workers who called 911. It was the deadliest escape attempt in North Carolina prison history.

Prisoners Jonathan Monk, Wisezah Buckman, Mikel Brady and Seth Frazier were charged with first-degree murder in the attacks on Darden and Smith. The four are serving time for a range of crimes, including murder, attempted murder and burglary.

Some current and former prison officers questioned whether inmates with violent histories should have been put to work in a sewing plant, where they would have access to potentially lethal tools.

Nine prison employees were injured in the Oct. 12 attacks.

One of them – Scott Stormer, a correctional officer who responded that day – was stabbed three times in the back as he confronted an inmate.

He and a swarm of officers helped apprehend the prisoners before they could climb the exterior fence.

Stormer, who returned to work last week, said that he hopes the state makes prisons safer for workers. The state should keep tighter control over inmate movements, he said, and better screen inmates who have prison jobs – and access to dangerous tools.

Gavin Off: 704-358-6038

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