NC prison leaders try to run, hide from questions about prison safety

RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) - The two top leaders overseeing North Carolina's prison system refused to answer questions when approached by a WBTV reporter and cameraman inside the North Carolina General Assembly last Thursday.

WBTV attempted to ask questions to North Carolina Department of Public Safety Chief Deputy Secretary Reuben Young and Director of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter as they stood in an empty committee hearing room roughly half an hour before the start of a committee meeting regarding prison safety.

The station has requested an interview with Young, Lassiter or their boss, DPS Secretary Erik Hooks, at least a half-dozen times since early February as part of an ongoing investigation into deadly problems plaguing the state's prisons. Each request was denied.

In response, WBTV investigative reporter Nick Ochsner said—both in emails with DPS as well as on-air at the end of stories—that the station would ask its questions of senior prison leaders in public at a time and place of the station's choosing.

WBTV investigation reveals deadly problems inside NC prisons

The investigation began after four employees were killed while working at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution in northeastern North Carolina in fall 2017. Earlier in the year, Sgt. Meggan Callahan was killed while on duty at Bertie Correctional Institution, making the total number of employees who died on duty in North Carolina's prisons in 2017 five.

Since the five deaths, WBTV has uncovered a culture in which employees admit to overlooking safety problems during audits of prisons where their friends work; where employees claim and documents support prison leadership attempted to manipulate staffing reports to make it appear as though more staff were working at prisons than were actually on duty and where workers say they face retaliation for reporting problems within their chain of command.

At least eleven correctional officers have been attacked on the job between mid-February and mid-March 2018.

The most recent attack came Saturday night, when a rookie corrections officer was stabbed multiple times with a homemade knife by an inmate at the Foothills Correctional Institution.

In response to one request for information about an attack at Pasquotank CI earlier this year, a DPS spokesman said no attack had taken place, despite documents WBTV had obtained confirming such an attack.

On a separate occasion, leadership at a different prison attempted to conceal information about an attack by not properly documenting the incident.

Prison leaders refuse to answer questions

After more than a month of requesting an on-camera interview with senior prison leadership to no avail, a WBTV camera crew went to the North Carolina General Assembly ahead of a meeting of the Joint Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety, where DPS leaders were scheduled to attend and testify.

WBTV approached Young and Lassiter as they stood in the middle of the empty committee room. Both men shook hands with the WBTV reporter, who proceeded to ask if the men would be willing to answer questions about safety issues that persist inside the state's prisons.

"Well, what I'll tell you is, is that the message has been sent to your managers at your station that if they have someone else that would like to talk with us, we'd be more than glad to grant them an interview," Reuben Young said.

Lassiter remained silent throughout the encounter. As the reporter kept asking questions, Young continued to refuse to answer.

"Again, my response is the same as it was before," Young said to a later line of questioning as he walked out of the committee room with Lassiter in tow.

The men attempted to hide out in the office of Rep. Frank Iler (R-Brunswick), where a DPS staffer tried to shut a door on the WBTV reporter, despite the fact that the office is a public space in a public building.

Eventually, Young and Lassiter went back into the committee room. As they walked away from the reporter, they refused to explain why they wouldn't answer questions.

"We're happy to talk with anyone else from your station," Young reiterated.

Governor's Office reiterates DPS position

In addition to refusing to grant an interview with a specific reporter from WBTV, DPS staff have taken additional steps to interfere with the station's ongoing investigation into problems inside state prisons in recent weeks.

In early March, staff at Lanesboro Correctional Institution in Anson County forced a WBTV photographer to turn off his camera as he shot video in the publicly-accessible parking lot in front of the prison. Staff then forced the photographer to leave.

On Monday, staff at Foothills Correctional Institution tailed a WBTV photographer as he left after shooting video of the prison. Staff continued to trail the photographer even as he did a U-turn and headed in the opposite direction.

When asked whether Governor Roy Cooper condoned DPS's refusal to grant an interview, multiple spokeswomen for North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper reiterated DPS's position.

At first, a spokeswoman for the governor responded to a question of whether Cooper condones the fact that one of his cabinet agencies is refusing to talk with one reporter who is critically investigating departments within the agency by sending a statement from DPS that reiterated the agency's refusal to interview with the WBTV reporter.

When pressed further, a second spokeswoman for Cooper said her office "isn't speaking for DPS on that matter."

An additional follow-up email from WBTV seeking to further clarify Cooper's position on media access to leaders of his cabinet agencies went unanswered.

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