After deadly year, prisons will crack down on inmates who attack staff

After deadly year, prisons will crack down on inmates who attack staff
These are some of the homemade weapons, known as shanks, that have been confiscated at Lanesboro Correctional Institution, southeast of Charlotte. More than once a day, on average, NC inmates assault prison employees. (The Charlotte Observer)

NORTH CAROLINA (Ames Alexander/The Charlotte Observer) - Following a deadly year for North Carolina's prison workers, state leaders on Friday announced they will significantly stiffen penalties for inmates who assault staff members.

Inmates who attack prison employees will be placed in solitary confinement and lose visitation privileges for at least a year, under a new prison policy unveiled Friday. Offenders may also serve more months in prison, because they could forfeit all previously accumulated credits for work and good behavior.

Five prison employees died in attacks at Eastern North Carolina prisons last year. In April 2017, Sgt. Meggan Callahan was killed inside Bertie Correctional Institution – allegedly by an inmate who beat her to death with a fire extinguisher.

And on Oct. 12, four more employees at Pasquotank Correctional Institution were fatally wounded when a group of inmates, allegedly wielding scissors and hammers, tried to escape the prison's sewing plant.

Following the killings, state prison leaders took steps to make the prisons safer. But assaults on staff have continued at a steady pace. In the first seven months of this year, the state reported 245 assaults on prison workers — more than one assault per day, on average. Thirty two of those attacks involved weapons, according to the state.

Brent Soucier, a high-ranking manager at Central Prison, was seriously injured in June when two inmates cut, beat and repeatedly stabbed him. Soucier has been released from the hospital, but he continues to recover from his injuries and is not yet back on the job, prison officials said.

"There's zero tolerance for assaulting staff," state Director of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter said in an interview Friday. "...We're making every effort to keep our staff safe."

Lassiter said prison officials have also begun to work more closely with prosecutors to ensure that inmates will be criminally charged when they assault and injure staff members.

Dangerously understaffed

Serious staff shortages have contributed to the dangers.

Better staffing might have saved the lives of the five prison employees who died in attacks last year, experts and officers told the Observer.

State figures show that in the month when Callahan was killed at Bertie Correctional Institution, roughly one of every five correctional officer positions there was vacant.

And at Pasquotank Correctional Institution, the staffing problems have been even worse. In October, when the four prison employees were fatally attacked, more than 28 percent of officer positions were vacant – up from 17 percent three years earlier.

State prison leaders say they've taken a number of steps to hire and retain employees. But there's little indication that the staffing situation has improved. In May, more than 30 percent of officer positions remained vacant at some of the state's large maximum-security prisons, state data show.

The staff shortages leave prison officers vastly outnumbered, experts and officers say. That makes it easier for inmates to acquire weapons, cellphones and other dangerous contraband – and easier for them to attack.

An Observer investigation published last year also found that officers who are paid to prevent prison corruption are often behind it. Officers frequently team up with prisoners on crimes that endanger staff members, inmates and the public.