Guest Editorial: State owes more to prison workers

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The medical examiner said her assailant threw hot or boiling water into her face, causing burns. Then he tried to cut her with a piece of glass. Finally, he hit her over the head with a fire extinguisher — many times — breaking her skull. The 29-year-old woman died of her injuries.

Callahan was an officer at Bertie Correctional Institute. Her attacker was an inmate, a convicted murderer who set a fire and, when she responded, sprang his deadly ambush.

That happened in April. The incident might have been forgotten or overlooked by the public — although not by her family, friends and fellow officers — if it weren’t for the bloodbath at a prison in Pasquotank County in October.

The killings of four employees by inmates sounded loud alarms. There was a hidden but now obvious problem behind our prison walls. These are incredibly dangerous places for employees. So we must add four names of those whom the state has failed: Veronica Darden, Justin Smith, Wendy Shannon and Geoffrey Howe.

One common denominator was quickly identified: The prisons were understaffed, by 26 percent at Bertie at the time of Callahan’s murder and by 28 percent at Pasquotank when several inmates attempted a violent escape.

Low pay is one reason for that, and it must be substantially improved. Better starting pay is needed to attract more recruits, and regular increases should be provided to make sure that experienced officers stay on the job.

This isn’t work that’s suitable for everyone. Correctional officers have to be alert, quick-thinking and well-trained. They have to be excellent people managers, adept at defusing conflicts and staying out of dangerous situations. They have to understand that, while prisons house criminals, one of their purposes is rehabilitation — and that inmates are human beings with human needs. These should be highly valued skills.

Prison officials also must consider whether they have the right systems and mechanisms in place to ensure safety. Are employees too often exposed to possible harm without proper backup? That clearly was the case in both fatal episodes this year. The state has taken steps to address those deficiencies but always must be assessing its practices and policies.

More than 20 years ago, lawmakers significantly changed the sentencing structure in North Carolina. They eliminated parole and many of the provisions that allowed inmates to earn time off their sentences with good behavior and efforts to improve their education and work skills. The public wanted the assurance that a criminal who was sentenced to life in prison would actually be locked up for the rest of his life.

As far as the public was concerned, that was the end of the story. No consideration was given to the practical effect of denying hope to people condemned to close confinement for the rest of their lives or for many decades. In such circumstances, some inmates might think they have nothing to lose by trying to escape or by assaulting a guard.

Appropriate state agencies or the legislature should study whether the elimination of parole and other incentives for good behavior has made our prisons more dangerous for the people who work in them. This study should look at practices in other states to determine whether some are more successful in managing their prison populations.

North Carolina’s failure can’t be laid at the feet of a governor or a legislature or prison administrators. It’s a systemic failure, and the public is partly responsible because of its “out of sight, out of mind” attitude toward prisons and desire to spend less tax money.

Few of us worried about Meggan Callahan, Veronica Darden, Justin Smith, Wendy Shannon and Geoffrey Howe until it was too late for them. We all owed them more, as we owe thousands of others who work around the clock in dangerous places for low pay and little thanks.