RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina prisons were already a more dangerous place to work before four employees at an understaffed prison were killed during a failed breakout last month, the deadliest in state history.
Assaults on prison staff so far this year are already 50 percent higher than five years ago, according to state prisons data provided to The Associated Press. The same period has seen a near-doubling of incidents in which employees at Pasquotank Correctional Institution — the site of last month’s failed escape — were so seriously hurt by inmates they missed workdays.
The cases don’t include non-injury assaults by inmates such as spitting, throwing urine or shoving employees.
The increase in assaults comes even though the prison system has cut the number of inmates by 3,000 since 2011.
The state Department of Public Safety, which runs the prisons, did not provide an official who could discuss the reasons for the growing danger. Changes in sentencing laws that sent more misdemeanor offenders to county jails instead of prisons “have done as intended and resulted in more violent offenders in prison for longer sentences,” agency spokesman Jerry Higgins wrote in an email Thursday.
According to public safety department figures, there were 69 reported assaults on employees across the state’s 55 prisons as of Nov. 2, compared to an average of 55 per year between 2012 and 2016.
The head of the legislative committee likely to shape prison reforms said Thursday that legislators are determined to improve safety, salaries and staffing levels in the wake of the Pasquotank deaths, and a fifth guard killed at a nearby prison earlier this year. The last time a prison worker was killed was 2010.
“This is an ongoing commitment to improving,” said Rep. Ted Davis, a New Hanover County Republican who heads the unified legislative committee overseeing public safety. “On behalf of the people of this state, I extend our deepest gratitude to those officers and employees working in such a dangerous line of duty so that we may be safe.”
Two correctional officers, a vocational instructor in the prison’s sewing plant and a maintenance worker died and four inmates are charged with murder in the Pasquotank escape attempt on Oct. 12.
Inmates attacked the sewing plant instructor and the lone guard overseeing about 30 inmates at work with scissors and other tools. About 15 minutes after beginning their assault, they radioed a fake alert about trouble in a distant part of the prison and then set a diversionary fire, according to an internal prisons report. At least one inmate scaled a series of obstacles and reached the outermost fence of the Elizabeth City prison during the escape bid before surrendering to guards.
So far this year, Pasquotank has seen 13 assaults that forced workers to lose work time, compared to an average of less than three per year over the previous five years.
Detectives this year were called to investigate two cases of inmates assaulting the prison’s correctional officers and three calls of inmates assaulting other prisoners, Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Lt. Brent McKecuen wrote in an email. He did not respond when asked to clarify how many of those cases resulted in charges against inmates.
The sheriff’s department previously reported investigating an inmate stabbing a fellow inmate in April and a prison rape in March.
Understaffing is a problem across the state’s prison system, especially at lockups in rural areas. About one out of seven of the correctional officer jobs were unfilled in September, previously released data show.
The Pasquotank prison was 28 percent short of its full complement of 266 correctional officers around the time of last month’s attack.
Nearby Bertie Correctional Institution, where a guard was beaten to death in April, had a 26 percent vacancy rate for correctional officer spots in October. Hyde Correctional Institution, also in the state’s rural northeast corner, was missing 38 percent of its assigned staffing level for guards.
This story has been revised to correct references to the Correction Department.