Crime & Courts

Toll rises in deadly NC prison attack

A third prison employee – officer Wendy Shannon – has died as a result of injuries suffered during the Oct. 12 escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Institution.

Shannon, 49, a retired Army officer, died Monday night at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital in Norfolk, Va.

“I’m deeply saddened that this brutal attack has taken the life of Correctional Officer Wendy Shannon, who was doing her job protecting the public,” Gov. Roy Cooper said late Monday. “Our hearts go out to the victim, her family, friends and coworkers.

“Prisons and their employees help keep our communities safe, and I’ve directed state prison officials to take the necessary steps to improve prison safety,” Cooper said.

Shannon grew up around Hertford, a small town of 2,100 people on the Albemarle Sound.

She previously worked at Elizabeth City State University and in October 2013 joined Pasquotank Correctional. She was working on the prison’s loading dock when she was killed, said a friend and former colleague who asked not to be named. An inmate who was trying to escape hit her with a hammer, the friend said.

Officers on the loading dock supervise trucks picking up trash and dropping off food and canteen items. They make sure contraband isn’t smuggled in and that delivery drivers are kept safe from inmates.

“Our hearts are broken at the passing of Officer Shannon,” said N.C. Department of Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks. “Our deepest condolences go out to the Shannon family during this difficult time.”

Attacks at a short-staffed prison

The assaults at the Eastern North Carolina prison also injured nine other employees. A gofundme page for one of those employees – maintenance worker Geoff Howe – indicated that he remained in critical condition after a recent surgery.

Four inmates were charged with first-degree murder in the attacks, which also killed prison employees Veronica Darden and Justin Smith.

Law enforcement authorities said the inmates were working inside the prison’s sewing plant when they tried to carry out the escape plan.

The 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.

One of the inmates charged in the attacks 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 the inmates with violent histories should have been put to work in a sewing plant, where they would have access to potentially lethal tools.

Just one officer - Justin Smith – was overseeing the more than 30 inmates in the sewing plant when the violence erupted, sources told the Observer.

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

‘We need to do something’

Shannon’s death underscores the need for prison reform, said Rep. Bob Steinburg, who this month called for a legislative commission to review problems in North Carolina’s prisons.

“The General Assembly needs to look into this,” said Steinburg, whose district includes Pasquotank. “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 said he should know by the end of the week whether House Speaker Tim Moore chooses to move forward with the commission. If it is formed, Steinburg said he hopes the commission has subpoena power, a tool that could ensure lawmakers receive information from prison workers who may be reluctant to talk

He said he talks with 10 to 15 prison officers a day. Their message: North Carolina appears to be “winging it” when it comes to running prisons.

“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.

Ames Alexander: 704-358-5060, @amesalex

Gavin Off: 704-358-6038