Editorial: Terror at Pasquotank

Published 12:22 am Friday, November 3, 2017

Four prison officers have now died as a result of an escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Unit in Elizabeth City last month — a brutal reminder of the risks faced by the more than 17,000 people who work in North Carolina prisons.

A state prison employee is assaulted an average of every eight hours, estimates Stanley Drewery, president of the State Employees Association of North Carolina. No one has challenged the statistic. Instead, prompted by blood that should not have been shed, a needed spotlight is finally shining on understaffing in the prison system.

The Pasquotank attack on Oct. 12 was especially vicious. Four inmates working in the prison’s sewing plant started a fire and went after prison employees with hammers and scissors. Ultimately, the would-be escapees got caught in the razor wire atop the prison’s fences. By the time the outbreak ended, the inmates had killed two officers and injured several more.

Now the dead from Pasquotank number four — Veronica Darden, who ran the sewing operation;  correctional officer Justin Smith; correctional officer Wendy Shannon; and, as of Thursday, maintenance mechanic Geoffrey Howe.

The four inmates face first-degree murder charges and have been moved to Butner.

The prison system is having a terrible year. An inmate fatally attacked another officer, Meggan Callahan, at the Bertie County Correctional Institution in April. That brings to eight the number of prison employees killed by inmates in the history of the state’s prison system.

Prison safety hits home in Rowan, where Piedmont Correctional Institution employs more than 400 people. With capacity for 952 inmates, Piedmont is among the state’s largest prisons, and houses minimum-, medium- and close-security inmates.

Pasquotank is a high or close-security unit with a capacity of 896 and roughly the same size staff as Piedmont.

Gov. Roy Cooper directed state prison officials to improve safety. Erik Hooks, secretary of public safety, took several steps, including a review of inmates assigned to correction enterprises like Pasquotank’s sewing plant — and Piedmont’s reupolstery plant. Legislators have also called for a review. Reform may be needed, but the first order of business is making sure prisons are fully and adequately staffed.

Study later. Staff now.