The deaths of two North Carolina prison employees last week, six months after a third employee’s death, point to unsafe working conditions within the state’s prisons, the group representing state employees tells the Charlotte Observer. Working inside the prisons has long been a dangerous job. Once every eight hours, on average, a North Carolina prison officer was assaulted last year. This year was particularly deadly. Justin Smith, a prison officer, and Veronica Darden, a manager, died Thursday at Pasquotank Correctional Institution. The sheriff believes inmates set a fire and attacked the prison workers during an escape attempt. At Bertie Correctional Institution, Sgt. Meggan Callahan was killed in April. Authorities say an inmate there set a fire in a trash can, then beat Callahan with the fire extinguisher that she had brought to douse the flames.
Ardis Watkins of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, said association officials asked lawmakers to act after Callahan’s death to improve working conditions in prisons, mostly by offering better salary and benefits so that hard-to-fill jobs wouldn’t remain empty. In the months since then, there has been no action. “You’re hearing about things like one officer who has 120 inmates he’s accountable for,” Watkins said. “We said this so much after Sgt. Callahan was murdered. This is going to keep happening.” During last week’s escape attempt, inmates beat prison employees with hammers and stabbed them with scissors. In April, when Callahan died, one of every five correctional officer positions at the eastern North Carolina prison was vacant. In 2016, more than 28 percent of officer positions at the Pasquotank prison were vacant. The vacancy rate there was second highest among the state’s 55 prisons.