The state’s correctional officers called on legislators Wednesday to take additional steps to improve safety after five employees died in 2017.
The State Employees Association of North Carolina released a report based on surveys and interviews with more than 600 correctional employees.
The association calls for increased pay for employees, enhanced penalties for inmates who attack prison employees, and a renewed push by district attorneys to prosecute more inmates for those crimes, among other reforms.
“We’re allowing all of those inmates out, almost up to 150 inmates for one or two officers to maintain control of, to watch, for oversight purposes,” said Samuel Adams, a former police officer and current corrections officer at Foothills Correctional Institution in Morganton. “We’re outnumbered drastically.”
In April 2017, Sgt. Meggan Callahan died at Bertie Correctional Institution when investigators say an inmate using a fire extinguisher attacked her.
Six months later, four more employees — Veronica Darden, Justin Smith, Wendy Shannon, and Geoffrey Howe — were killed during an escape attempt at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution. The district attorney, in that case, is seeking the death penalty for the inmates charged with their murders.
“But the point is not just to do something for doing something’s sake. What we need to do is, we need to do something that will work and work (for a) long time,” said Republican Sen. Bob Steinburg who represents Pasquotank County.
The SEANC report notes an average vacancy rate of 25 percent among correctional officer positions. It also points out that in 2017, the average correctional officer salary was $36,990, which is below the national average of $47,600.
“We haven’t been able to come up to full staffing or anywhere near full staffing with even the steps that we’ve taken. So, that has to be addressed,” said Steinburg.
He noted some steps the legislature already has taken, including increasing the death benefit paid to families of officers killed on the job.
“The steps we took last year, the legislature, haven’t really changed the dynamics dramatically,” he said.
In response to the report, Public Safety Sec. Erik Hooks said in a prepared statement:
We share the concerns about the safety of prisons and those who work in them and welcome support and ideas as we continue working to improve prison safety. DPS has already implemented many of the recommended changes in SEANC’s report to make prisons safer such as additional training for correctional staff, changes in law and policy to hold offenders more accountable for assaults on staff, and providing more than 10,000 stab resistant vests and other safety equipment to prison employees. Many other safety improvements are in process including some recommended in the report, as well as some we are currently piloting in state prisons. We welcome continued collaboration with SEANC and other stakeholders to help keep our prisons and our communities safe.