Before deadly rampage, inmates had keys, scissors and a secret hiding spot, report finds

The deadliest attack in North Carolina prison history began in a sewing plant where staff shortages and glaring security failures allowed inmates to roam freely with easy access to dangerous tools.

Those findings are detailed in a 78-page report by the National Institute of Corrections, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. The recently released report found a litany of problems at Pasquotank Correctional Institution, where four employees were fatally attacked during an Oct. 12 escape attempt.

Prison staff, according to the federal report, had allowed inmates to wander through doors that should have been locked and had let them turn a stock room into a “hiding place” concealed from security cameras. Inmates even checked out their own tools – including hammers and scissors with six-inch blades.

Meanwhile, no one at the eastern North Carolina prison was watching surveillance cameras that monitored the sewing plant.

By the time the rampage was done, inmates had beaten multiple employees with hammers and stabbed them with scissors, according to prison workers who called 911. Those attacks took the lives of prison officers Wendy Shannon and Justin Smith, along with sewing plant manager Veronica Darden and maintenance worker Geoffrey Howe.

Senator Bob Steinburg N.C. General Assembly

“How is it allowed to spiral downward to such a level where these sorts of everyday things, the common sense things, were being neglected, that safety was just taken for granted?” asked Rep. Bob Steinburg, a Republican from eastern North Carolina.

The federal report, which was commissioned to assess prison safety and security, also reveals new details about how officials say inmates carried out their deadly attacks.

Why weren’t inmates stopped earlier?

The four inmates who have been charged with first-degree murder in the killings – Jonathan Monk, Wisezah Buckman, Mikel Brady and Seth Frazier – all worked in the prison’s sewing plant, where prisoners produced embroidered logo items and safety vests.

Only inmates had “full access” to a locked storage room, the federal report found. Inside that room, storage racks blocked a security camera.

“This prevented staff from being able to see, or the camera to record, important aspects of the incident that occurred on October 12, 2017,” the report states.

Investigators now believe the inmates started a fire in the storage room to divert attention from their scheme.

The inmates then fought their way down an elevator, past an outside loading dock and over several interior prison fences before officers caught them, according to an inmate disciplinary report.

There was no camera near the elevator where the first attack began, the federal report says. An unlocked hallway door, meanwhile, “helped the inmates facilitate the attack on staff and carry out their attempted escape,” the report stated. A second unlocked door let inmates exit the building.

They were armed with tools needed for their escape attempt.

According to the federal report, an inmate at the sewing plant – not a prison staff member – routinely issued tools to his fellow prisoners. The tools were kept in unlocked cabinets and the inmates were allowed to use them without direct supervision.

‘Overwhelming’ staff shortage

Thirty inmates, including 12 maximum-security prisoners, were working in the sewing plant the day of the attack. A single officer – half the recommended number – watched over them.

The officer was responsible for providing security, including strip-searching the prisoners, according to the federal report. Such searches happened just 20 percent of the time, the report states. Despite the staff shortages, the plant operated at full inmate capacity.

When the federal investigators asked why the escape attempt happened, the common response from prison employees was: “Pasquotank has an overwhelming shortage of security staff,” the report states.

About 25 percent of officer positions at the prison were vacant at the time of the escape, according to the report.

Most staff members told investigators “emphatically” that they did not feel safe.

Last week’s federal report outlines a series of prison safety failures at both Pasquotank and Nash Correctional Institution, which both had industrial plants that were staffed by inmates and run by Correction Enterprises. The report recommends:

▪ The prisons should provide more equipment to protect staff in emergencies.

It took backup officers at Pasquotank about 20 minutes to arrive after the first two employees were fatally wounded, records show.

A sewing plant supervisor told investigators that he did not have a radio and panicked during the chaos. The federal report recommended that radios be issued to all staff who work with inmates.

Many prisons nationally have supplied staff with personal body alarms, but North Carolina’s prisons have not.

That will soon change. In a legislative hearing last week, N.C. prison leaders announced they would spend $12.5 million on personal body alarms for officers and visitors. Those alarms would help staff and visitors notify others if an inmate attacks.

▪ The state should develop a “more robust” process for determining which inmates are allowed to work in Correction Enterprises plants.

Among the four inmates charged in the Pasquotank attacks, one 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.

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 dangerous tools. The federal report recommended that prison officials evaluate the potential “violence risk” of inmates before assigning them to such jobs.

After the attacks, state Department of Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks suspended more than 250 violent offenders from Correction Enterprises jobs that involve potentially dangerous tools. He also prohibited those convicted of violent crimes against government officials and law enforcement officers from being assigned to such jobs.

▪ The prisons need more comprehensive security audits.

The state’s last security audit at Pasquotank, conducted in February 2017, said that the prison met expectations in every category. But the federal investigators quickly found two areas where the prison was not in compliance.

“It was alluded to during interviews, that there is a ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ approach when it comes to the inter-department security audits,” the report said.

Sen. Shirley Randleman, who co-chairs a legislative committee that oversees the prisons, said her panel will likely discuss the report in a future meeting. The committee’s other co-chairs – Rep. Jamie Boles and Ted Davis – did not return phone calls.

“It appears from what I could see that this is much more troubling than I ever suspected,” said Steinburg, who serves on the committee. “The levels of carelessness are extremely disturbing.”

Gavin Off: 704-358-6038

Ames Alexander: 704-358-5060, @amesalex

Wrong Side of the Bars?

A Charlotte Observer investigation published in June found that a hidden world of drugs, sex and gang violence thrives inside the state’s prisons – and that officers who are paid to prevent such corruption are instead fueling it. Prison officers frequently collude with inmates on crimes that endanger staff members, inmates and the public.