Phil Berger and Tim Moore play politics in the face of tragedy

The Observer editorial board

Four workers were killed by inmates during an October escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Institution.
Four workers were killed by inmates during an October escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Institution. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

They say the definition of chutzpah is a boy killing his parents and then pleading with the judge for leniency because he’s an orphan.

We now have a slightly different definition in North Carolina: Legislative leaders creating and tolerating the conditions that allow inmates to kill prison workers, then blaming the officers’ deaths on the governor whose administration is trying to actually address the problem.

Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore released a statement on Friday in response to the killings of four prison employees in Pasquotank County. As it turns out, they were seeking to politicize the tragedy rather than effectively remedy the conditions that make the state’s prisons so dangerous for correctional officers.

They claimed that Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein have imposed a death penalty moratorium. “No matter what they say, Cooper’s and Stein’s indifference and failure to fight the moratorium endangers the lives of prison employees in close proximity to hardened murderers with nothing left to lose, who see no possibility they will face execution for killing again,” Berger said.

Berger and Moore are Republicans. Cooper and Stein are Democrats. But you would hope Berger and Moore could set aside the political attacks just long enough to provide safe working conditions for North Carolina’s correctional officers.

North Carolina’s de facto death penalty moratorium – which is in place for reasons far beyond Cooper and Stein – has little to do with the deaths of the four prison employees at Pasquotank Correctional Institution or that of officer Meggan Callahan at Bertie Correctional Institution.

The real problem, as multiple experts have explained to Observer reporters Ames Alexander and Gavin Off, is skeletal staffing, numerous vacancies and minimal training for officers who are put in dangerous situations. Low pay exacerbates the state’s inability to attract people to the job.

Justin Smith was the only correctional officer in a sewing plant at the Pasquotank prison watching more than 30 inmates who had access to scissors and other potential weapons when an escape attempt began. In Bertie, Callahan had half the number of staffers under her as she was supposed to have when an inmate beat her to death with a fire extinguisher. About a quarter to a fifth of positions have been vacant at those prisons.

A national study of prison management by Duke University released last week urges North Carolina to increase hiring, in part through referral and signing bonuses. It also found that North Carolina needs to beef up its officer training, which is shorter than that of most other states Duke reviewed. It also cited the state’s low pay for prison officers, which is about $8,000 below the national average at maximum security prisons despite recent raises.

Rep. Bob Steinburg, a Republican who represents Pasquotank County, is wisely pushing for these kinds of solutions and others.

Those are the kinds of reforms that the state’s prisons and its vulnerable officers need. What it doesn’t need are the legislature’s so-called leaders trying to score political points amid tragedies.