Elizabeth City, NC - A state group said that it asked the North Carolina General Assembly to improve working conditions in prisons after the April murder of Correctional Sgt. Meggan Callahan at Bertie Correctional Institution.
Remarks from the group, the State Employees Association of North Carolina, came after Correctional Officer Justin Smith and Correction Enterprises Manager Veronica Darden were murdered during a botched prison escape at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution on Wednesday, October 11, according to The News & Observer.
Ardis Watkins, head lobbyist for the group, said on Friday that she and other officials had asked the North Carolina General Assembly to act after Sgt. Callahan's death.
She said that they urged legislators to "improve working conditions in prisons, mostly by offering better salary and benefits so that hard-to-fill guard jobs wouldn’t remain empty."
During the attempted escape, inmates set multiple fires in the sewing plant at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution as a diversion.
Four inmates tried to escape but only made it to the yard of the sewing plant.
Several prison employees were injured in the incident; two remain in critical condition and a third is in fair condition.
Watkins said that no action has been taken by the General Assembly to address these issues.
She said, “You’re hearing about things like one officer who has 120 inmates he’s accountable for. We said this so much after Sgt. Callahan was murdered. This is going to keep happening.”
Watkins said that employee absenteeism is a major problem at prisons because officers know they are short-handed and can call in sick without any consequences.
She said, “They can’t address absenteeism because they can’t fire anyone since it’s so hard to hire new people. And that’s not something I hear only at some prisons. That’s all over the state.”
It is not known if the Pasquotank Correctional Institution is under-staffed. There were 725 inmates there on Wednesday, with a capacity for 900.
In response, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said that he was temporarily suspending the prison's sewing plant where the incident began.
He also said that he would order more staffing in other prisons’ work areas, and a safety review of prison work programs.
Watkins said that more training was needed in addition to the additional funding.
She also said that correctional officers in the state should be classified as law enforcement officers, which would give them additional benefits and make jobs easier to fill.
If they were considered law enforcement officers, their families could receive between $50,000 and $333,604 in death benefits from state or federal governments.
In 2013, statistics show that the average correctional officer in the state made only $29,000.
Over the past five years, the state has increased correctional officers' pay, which now averages between $33,500 to $38,300, depending on the security level of the prison.
In a statement, SEANC President Stanley Drewery said, “It’s past time for the state to give these heroes the resources, training and manpower to ensure that they return home safely."