North Carolina prison safety plan: Working or failing?

North Carolina

ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (WAVY) — Two tragedies, five deaths, one flawed system. There’s no denying the North Carolina prison system has seen its fair share of problems — most notably the murders in 2017 at Bertie and Pasquotank Correctional institutions

However, several state lawmakers, a new man at the helm and the family of the victims are pushing for a reform of the North Carolina prison system. 

That group includes Dyrel Nowell.

Nowell’s sister, Veronica Darden, was the sewing plant manager at Pasquotank Correctional and was killed during an attempted prison escape in October 2017. Veronica, who also went by “Ronnie,” was murdered inside of prison walls at the hands of inmates.

The inmates responsible were the inmates Ronnie also loved and tried to care for. 

“On Thanksgiving, she would fix dinner for them — the same ones that killed her,” said Nowell. “By me being the oldest of five, I was their babysitter, so they were like my kids, you know? It was like I lost one of my children.”

It took Nowell three years to open up about her sister.  Ronnie was her best friend, her sister and her partner in crime. 

“She liked her inmates, she liked what she did, she liked being around the people, she liked the job,” said Nowell. “I never imagined this would happen. Never.”

Former prison nurse Michelle Godfrey described in court what she called a “bloodbath” and the moment she remembers checking Ronnie’s pulse.  

“I went to open her airway, my fingers literally went into her neck, on the left side, and that’s when I told my nurse, her neck has been cut,” said Godfrey. 

Since the beginning,  Sen. Bob Steinburg has been involved in problems plaguing the prisons. Steinburg is the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Prison Safety, which created the Prison Reform Act.

“It was time for somebody to do something and that somebody was me,” said Steinburg. “Many of us were aware that there were problems in the department.”

The bill was created after the release of a 78-page federal report outlining safety and staffing issues in North Carolina prisons.  

“I don’t think there are any questions that we are going to see changes,” said Steinburg. 

Under the Prison Reform Act, recruitment and retention is a high priority. Prisons with high vacancy rates would be eligible for salary supplements up to $7,500 a year under the plan.

This is in addition to a 5-percent pay hike also included in the Senate’s budget. Another part of the reform bill offers two options to allocate more focus to the Department of Corrections. Either the department would break out as its own agency from the Department of Public Safety, or the DOC would be made into a unique agency with its own deputy secretary. 

“This is a very, very dangerous job and we need to compensate those folks who are going in behind bars, 12 hours shifts, three days in a row, they need to be compensated proportionately to the risk they take,” Steinburg said. 

It’s a risk that teeters on life-or-death situations, corrections officers have told 10 On Your Side.

“Something drops off, and an inmate is getting attacked right in my face, and I don’t move when I need to because my brain is not registering that ‘Hey, he is getting attacked.’ Until I register it, it can be too late. He can sue me for that,” said a corrections officer, who wished to remain anonymous. 

Steinburg says that’s changing, thanks to new management.

“Todd Ishee, who is now the commissioner of prisons who came in from Ohio, is doing an incredible job,” the officer said.

10 On Your Side spoke with the new commissioner about his work to make the system better. 

“It’s something I have prepared for, for the 30 years, and my mentality was really to learn,” Ishee said. 

Ishee says operations at four prison sites were suspended and that staff was diverted to a dozen other prisons. At Pasquotank Correctional alone, they’ve reduced the staff vacancy rate by 40 percent. However, Ishee says staff vacancy rates are still too high — as are the number of assaults.

“We have too many staff that are being hurt too often and that’s something we are throwing every bit of resources to this year,” said Ishee. 

In 2019, however, assaults were down. The system saw a 7.2-percent drop in assaults on staff using weapons or the body. But prisoners are finding new, creative ways to make weapons, using objects like the bedsprings in their cells.

“Over half of our prisons we’ve replaced bedsprings with a solid piece of welded metal,” he said.

And now there are 1,300 more security cameras. And the sewing plant at Pasquotank where Ronnie was killed is closed. System-wide, the most dangerous offenders are no longer allowed to work enterprise jobs.

But is it enough for the family of those who lost their lives?

“I feel like they are doing it slowly, I do … because with what happened out there, I would have re-vamped the whole system, but its taken years and I don’t agree with it,” said Nowell. 

Ishee had a response to Nowell’s concern about the progress. 

“I would say that I agree with her. Our system is very, very large. We have over 50 prisons and we’ve got over 16,000 staff, and sometimes it’s hard to implement and make a change immediately,” he said. 

And while she waits, Nowell says there will never be a day she doesn’t think about her sister, who died doing what she loved at the hands of those she loved.

“I can’t explain how much I miss her. It’s hard… I won’t see her again until I go where she is. I miss her,” Nowell said.

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