PASQUOTANK COUNTY, N.C. (WVEC) — October 12, 2018 marks one year since the attempted escape from the prison in Pasquotank, North Carolina. Four people lost their lives when inmates tried to break out of prison.
Since then, 13News Now uncovered problems at the prison that inmates took advantage of that October day. North Carolina officials released detailed reforms and are enacting the reforms in the aftermath.
However, family members, of the victims, still have questions.
The loved ones left behind feel their situation has only gotten worse. Every time they hear of an injured officer or inmate at a prison their anger grows. The families and a lawmaker, who has taken up their cause, still want answers and accountability.
“It's real,” said Rep. Bob Steinburg, who represents the Pasquotank area. “It's close to home and it hurts.”
The families of the four Pasquotank victims want the public to remember the victims' names and faces. According to Steinburg, they motivate him.
“I understand their frustration with the snail's pace that seems to be taking place in terms of reform,” he said.
Correctional Officers Justin Smith and Wendy Shannon, sewing plant Manager Veronica Darden and maintenance mechanic Geoffrey Howe all died from their injuries.
“I can assure them of this, and that is that they did not die in vain,” he said.
Their deaths forced a focus on all aspects of prisons. Steinburg said he gets regular calls from those working behind bars, and they tell him even a year later real reform and changes that mean something are still needed. So, Steinburg believes those at the top of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, corrections and prisons need to go.
“They're the ones that are running this operation and until that change is made, you're not going to see real change because there's no trust and there's no confidence,” he claimed.
In some ways, lawmakers and officials have been able to make fixes in the last year. In the past year, corrections officers received a 4 percent raise and doubled the death benefits given to families of those killed in the line of duty. North Carolina Department of Public Safety administrators said they've worked to recruit and retain officers to combat staffing shortages. There's an effort to do a better job of finding contraband on inmates and increased the consequences if inmates assault staff.
Also, one of the first things Steinburg will propose in the next session is lowering the retirement for corrections officers from 30 years to 25 years of service. He hopes this will motivate veterans to stay on the job.
“It's like serving in a war zone every single day, not just a tour of duty but serving in a war zone every single day for twenty years, twenty-five years,” Steinburg explained. “That takes its toll.”
For now, that situation leads him to one conclusion.
“I don't feel that they are much safer than they were one year ago,” he added. “We've made great progress, but we have a long way to go!”
13News Now reached out to the Governor’s Office and NCDPS for a statement on the one-year anniversary and a response to Steinburg’s push for change.
Ford Porter, Spokesman for Governor Roy Cooper sent this statement:
Last year’s tragic incident reminds us all of the critical work prison employees do and the risks they face daily to protect the public. Our thoughts remain with those who lost loved ones and colleagues in the attack. Their memories spur us to do more to make prisons safer and more secure, including better pay and added security measures for prison employees who do this difficult work. Governor Cooper visited with correctional officers and other employees at Pasquotank Correctional Institution this week to discuss the attack and how they are doing a year later.
Along with the statement was a list of steps taken to improve safety:
- Pushed for and won salary increases for all prison staff, above what other state employees received
- Brought in national experts to advise on prison safety, including the National Institute of Corrections.
- Enhanced sanctions against offenders who assault staff
- Improving technology to detect and confiscate items such as cell phones, tobacco, and synthetic drugs from entering facilities
- Purchasing radios, batons and pepper spray to fully equip certified staff (correctional officers and case managers) in facilities at all custody levels
- Piloting personal body alarm “man-down” technology at three facilities – radio use for staff and panic alarms for visitors
- Deploying whistles to non-certified staff who are not assigned radios
- Deploying stab resistant shirts for 13,000 certified staff
- Installing more cameras to improve surveillance
- Conducting unannounced security assessments based on new audit standards
- Reviewing and modifying security policies and procedures
- Piloting use of tasers for supervisory staff at four close security prisons
- Revalidating offender classification, with technical assistance from theNational Institute of Corrections.
- Updating Basic Correctional Officer curriculum, with expansion from four to six weeks anticipated in January 2019
- Modifying the hiring process and developing targeted recruitment strategies to improve hiring
- Enhancing supervisory training programs and developing career pathways to improve retention
- Pairing new correctional officers with a training officer to promote the application of skills learned during basic training and improve retention
NCDPS Communications Officer Jerry Higgins, responded to 13News Now:
Despite repeated requests, neither would directly address Steinburg's concerns about the leadership of the agencies.
On Friday, 13News Now learned that the prosecutor is seeking the death penalty for the inmates charged in the attack.