After 5 deaths, state leader listening to concerns from prison officers

911 calls reveal moments of panic in prison 'mass casualty incident'

Four prison employees were killed during an attempted escape at Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City, N.C.
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Four prison employees were killed during an attempted escape at Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City, N.C.

Following the killings of five North Carolina prison workers in 2017, the head of the state Department of Public Safety began meeting with officers this week to hear their concerns about how prisons are run.

Department secretary Erik Hooks met Monday with staff members at Pasquotank Correctional Institution, where four employees were fatally injured on Oct. 12. He was scheduled to meet Tuesday with employees at Bertie Correctional Institution, where a sergeant was killed in April. Visits to other prisons are also planned.

The Pasquotank employees were fatally wounded when a group of inmates, allegedly wielding scissors and hammers, tried to escape the prison’s sewing plant.

According to a department press release, Pasquotank workers discussed a number of concerns with Hooks, including:

▪ Insufficient training for officers

▪ Inmates who take advantage of the state’s disciplinary policy

▪ Inadequate support from supervisors

Many officers have shared similar thoughts with the Observer.

Pasquotank officer Scott Stormer, who was stabbed three times during the escape attempt, said prison administrators give inmates too much freedom. The movement, he worries, will allow another officer to get hurt.

“They just walk around like it’s a daycare,” he wrote in an email to the Observer last week. “Someone higher up in charge needs to be a strong and stern leader and make some serious changes.”

In a recent letter to lawmakers, retired prison psychologist John Schwade contended “prison leaders essentially declared war on their own employees.”

The state has been unable to recruit and retain enough prison employees because of “the widespread and gross mistreatment of prison staff,” Schwade wrote. “And to that we now add the unacceptable danger.”

According to a recent East Carolina University study, 39 percent of recently surveyed prison officers and supervisors said they wanted to quit. More than 70 percent said the state did not work to retain staff.

Also this week, investigators for the National Institute of Corrections – a federal agency that provides help and information to prison leaders – began a review of Pasquotank’s safety and security operations. They are also looking into Correction Enterprises, which employees about 2,500 inmates statewide, teaching them job skills, such as sewing.

Investigators with the corrections institute plan to visit several North Carolina prisons while they’re in the state, the release said.

“We will be looking at everything from top to bottom reviewing policies, how they are written and how they are being interpreted,” Hooks said. “I do not take for granted that all of you in the criminal justice family have some risk and potentially walk into dangerous situations every day. I will continue to investigate ways to make prisons safer and to take action to reduce those risks.”

Gavin Off: 704-358-6038

New prison committee member: ‘There is no Band-Aid’

N.C. Rep. Bob Steinburg, who called for an investigation into the state’s prison system, has joined the legislative committee charged with overseeing the prisons.

House Speaker Tim Moore added Steinburg, a Republican, to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety on Monday. He will serve as an advisory member.

Steinburg’s district includes Pasquotank County, where four prison workers were fatally wounded in an October escape attempt. His district is not far from Bertie County, where authorities say an inmate killed a prison sergeant in April.

Steinburg, who called for the investigation following the attempted breakout, said he’s spoken to or corresponded with more than 100 prison workers in recent months. Their message: The prisons are broken.

Steinburg said his goal is to review the entire prison system, “starting at the top and working our way down.”

“That is the only way to fix this thing,” he said. “There is no Band-Aid to put on this.”