Recording: 'I'll overlook this, you overlook that' administrator says of prison safety audit

EDENTON, NC (WBTV) - Wendy Callahan breaks into a smile flipping through photographs of her daughter Meggan.

The photos paint a picture of a young woman living a happy life: with friends on a tip to Raleigh, with her nephew, and her family.

But those photographs are the only way Wendy Callahan can paint a picture of the kind of person her daughter was.

Meggan Callahan was violently beaten to death with a fire extinguisher by an inmate at Bertie Correctional Institution, where she worked as a corrections officer, in April 2017.

Callahan said Meggan's death did not come as a surprise.

"I didn't have to wonder. My daughter told me what it was like in prisons," she said. "She was understaffed; no one had to tell me that."

Callahan said her daughter would come home from work - a job, Callahan said, her daughter said she loved - and talk about the lack of equipment and poorly trained staff she worked with.

"You're in prison with people that are dangerous without the tool to be able to do your job properly. That's not smart and it's unsafe," Callahan said.

In the months after Meggan Callahan's death, lawmakers and prison leaders vowed to make changes to safety protocols and operating procedures inside prisons.

Instead of making things safer, things got worse.

Four prison employees at Pasquotank Correctional Institution died as the result of a brutal attack by inmates during an attempted prison escape.

Veronica Darden, Justin Smith, Wendy Shannon, and Geoffrey Howe were all killed in the attack.

An internal report of the incident, obtained only by WBTV, shows the inmates attacked the four employees with a claw hammer and scissors. The attack began in a warehouse where prisoners worked making industrial textile products. It took 20 minutes from the time the attack began before help arrived, the report showed.

Wendy Callahan said the four deaths at Pasquotank point to the fact that prison leaders have a much bigger problem to fix than the one they initially tried to paint in the wake of her daughter's death.

"Right now it's a sinking ship," she said. "They're sticking their finger in the holes and not realizing the boat is going down."

'I'll overlook this, you overlook that'

As North Carolina's prison leaders were pledging sweeping reforms to improve workplace safety, a group of central administrators convened a meeting with a group of staff in mid-December to discuss the discontinuation of a program that helps mentor corrections officers.

The meeting was led by Melanie Wood, a business systems analyst in the prison administration's human resources officer.

Wood explained to the group of roughly 60 career readiness counselors that their jobs were being abolished in favor of a smaller team that would conduct safety audits inside prisons. A second newly-created team would work to write, implement and monitor policies within the prisons.

The need for such teams, Wood said, had been identified by a national group that had recently conducted a review of the state's prison system.

"We live or die by policy. Sometimes we die by our own policies because we don't follow them," Wood said. "We have policy and then we have what we really do and that's not good. It needs to all match."

Wood went on to explain the need for an internal group of dedicated safety auditors because, under the current system, Wood said, audit teams routinely overlook safety problems to benefit their friends.

"You and I both know that when I go to your facility or when you go to my facility to look at security issues, we sort of take a cursory glance because we don't want to hurt our buddies' feelings at another facility," she said. "And that's all well and good but we really need honest input from these audits."

Later in the meeting, Wood was more explicit about the way employees have ignored safety problems in the past.

"We've been auditing each other's facilities for years," she said. "And we know that we have just, 'I'll overlook this, you overlook that.' We all do it because we're all buddies. We look after each other. That's what we do. We need fresh eyes to go in and look at facilities and to say 'this is an issue.'"

Lawmaker calls for action

North Carolina State Representative Bob Steinburg (R-Chowan) said he does not think many of his colleagues in the legislature understand the magnitude of the safety issue in North Carolina's prisons.

In fact, Steinburg said, he didn't realize how bad the problems were until he started engaging employees inside the state's prisons.

"The problem begins at the top and it's not just the top of the Department of Corrections, it's all the way up to the top of the Department of Public Safety," Steinburg said. "There is no trust by the rank-and-file of these individuals. There's no faith in these individuals."

Steinburg sits on the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee for Justice and Public Safety, which recently received a report about the improvements prison leaders are say are being made in the wake of the deaths of five employees in 2017.

Among the changes are stab-proof undershirts for corrections officers and equipment that will allow any prison employee or visitor to call for help from inside a prison.

Currently, Steinburg said, prison employees should not feel safe going to work.

"We need to do something, otherwise, it's a crap shoot every night," he said.

Steinburg said it's up to the legislature to find a solution to the deadly problem plaguing the state's prisons.

"If anybody thinks this story is going away, it's not going away," he said. "So we're going to have to fix it sooner or later."

Prison leadership refuses to give answers

A spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, which oversees the state's prison system, declined a request for an on-camera interview for this story.

But NCDPS did publish a video on Monday - the day this story first aired - featuring a question-and-answer session with Reuben Young, the interim chief deputy secretary for Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice.

Wendy Callahan said she will continue fighting to make North Carolina's prisons safer in hopes more people won't have to lose their lives to senseless attacks.

"I'm fighting for my daughter and those four other people that died unnecessarily," she said. "It wasn't because it was a violent place; it's because it was stupid, stupid, stupid."

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