Editorial: Cooper, legislative leaders must cooperate for better pay, staffing and security for prisons

Posted November 2, 2017 5:00 a.m. EDT
Updated November 2, 2017 12:55 p.m. EDT

CBC Editorial: Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017; Editorial # 8231
The following is the opinion of Capitol Broadcasting Company

For those who work in prisons, there is always the likelihood of being in the wrong place at the wrong time – particularly in places like the Pasquotank Correctional Institution that house the most hardened convicts.

Veronica Darden, 50, was a wife, mother and prison sewing plant manager; Justin James Smith, 35, a correctional officer who worked two jobs; Wendy Shannon, 49, a correctional officer. They are the sad testament -- “wrong-place, wrong-time” -- to the every-day risks we expect of those who protect us from society’s most dangerous.

The three were killed during a botched prison break last month as inmates set a fire and viciously assaulted the staff. Four inmates have been charged with murder. The prison remains on lock-down. The sewing plant has been permanently closed.

More than most activities of government, prisons are too-often out-of-sight, out-of-mind -- until there is a tragedy or crisis. The events of Oct. 12 near Elizabeth City – along with others including the deadly beating of Sgt. Meggan Lee Callahan at the Bertie prison earlier this year – are high alerts about the fragile security and working conditions of our prisons that need to be immediately addressed along with making needed changes.

There is chronic understaffing, particularly among the ranks of correctional officers. Just last month, 31 percent of the security positions at the Pasquotank prison were vacant. While the average at state prisons that house the most dangerous criminals was 18 percent, the October vacancy rate was 35 percent at Polk prison in Granville County, 32 percent at the facility in Warren County and 27 percent at the Tabor prison in Columbus County. At the Bertie prison, where Sgt. Callahan was beaten to death with a fire extinguisher, there is a 26 percent vacancy rate.

When safety of guards, other prisoners and the public is at stake, this is unacceptable.

North Carolina ranks 43rd nationally in correctional officer average pay. The three corrections employees killed last month, combined, made $117,510 annually – none exceeded the $48,600 income level for a family of four to quality for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (Food Stamps).

Running prisons so they are secure and safer for staff; providing guards with the resources – particularly appropriate staffing and pay – it is a basic duty of government.

Erik Hook, state Secretary of Public Safety, has announced several steps being taken now to assure Pasquotank and the state’s other prisons are safe. Most are administrative.

More must happen. There needs to be a coordinated and cooperative approach to address the challenges and assure the proper operation and security of our prisons. Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration and the leadership of the General Assembly must work together – and starting now – to develop solutions that can be enacted during the spring’s short legislative session.

The return-on-investment is the safety of our communities. That would be a sound, business-like way to operate.


Prison County Positions Vacancies
Alexander Alexander 308 68 (22%)
Central Wake 614 54 (9%)
Foothills Burke 306 19 (6%)
Lanesboro Anson 384 99 (26%)
Marion McDowell 268 25 (9%)
Institute for Women Wake 387 69 (18%)
Pasquotank Pasquotank 266 82 (31%)
Polk Granville 322 113 (35%)
Scotland Scotland 351 37 (10%)
Southern Montgomery 181 31 (17%)
Tabor Columbus 333 48 (27%)
Warren Warren 217 70 (32%)
TOTAL 3,937 725 (18%)

SOURCE: N.C. Dept. of Public Safety

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