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In April, Sgt. Meggan Callahan was beaten to death by an inmate at the Bertie Correctional Institution. Just six months later, four prison employees died in a failed escape attempt at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution.
The investigation and official review of the first murder has been completed. A similar probe is underway at Pasquotank.
State Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks suggested last week that the public may never know the full story of what happened in those two incidents. That’s an outrage.
Public employees, paid by the public’s tax dollars and overseen by elected and appointed public officials died. The public that owns those prisons and pays for them deserves to know what went wrong.
Transparency is the only way to insure accountability. And by many measures, our prison system has been less than accountable.
Hooks said last week that, “At the appropriate time — if it’s appropriate — to make a public disclosure about some of the details of what happened, then that may occur.” Hooks said the secrecy may be justified for security reasons, to conform to privacy laws for inmates and to preserve evidence that may be presented at future murder trials of the five inmates accused in the two incidents. He added that it’s even less likely that the state will release details that explain how and why the attacks occurred.
“Whereas I will use that information to inform me — and I have been doing so as we work to make positive change within our correctional facilities — those are not a matter of public record that I anticipate releasing,” he said.
That doesn’t sit well with Rep. Bob Steinburg, a Republican who represents Elizabeth City, where the Pasquotank prison is located.
“This is the largest tragedy, biggest tragedy” in state prison history, he said. “They need to be accountable. And just saying that this is going to threaten security is, to me, weak.”
Steinburg is right on the money when he observes that, “If it’s not going to be brought forward publicly then chances are pretty good that we are not going to ever know what happened and we’re not going to be adequately able to help prevent something like this from happening again.”
There are serious questions being raised about the level of security in our state prisons. A significant part of the problem is financial. We know that our prisons are underfunded and that our prison staffers are underpaid when compared with their peers in other state prison systems. We also know that most — maybe all — of our prisons are dangerously understaffed, and that most guards feel a fatalistic certainty that they’re going to be at least seriously injured while on the job.
There are questions, too, about the adequacy of training for prison staff, and corruption among some guards, who sometimes moonlight by selling contraband to inmates. Others may look the other way when bad things are happening in cellblocks or yards. And we’ve heard stories about guards sleeping on the job.
We’ve heard all these things, but the state insists on draping a dark shroud of secrecy over the ways our prisons are run.
That’s not going to change until the General Assembly forces some sunlight into the system. If our prison bureaucrats are hiding behind personnel and other privacy laws, then the laws need to be changed. And it’s clear that lawmakers need to take a deep and detailed look at staffing and funding of our prisons.
But more than anything else, they need to introduce a high level of accountability into the prison system. That’s clearly gone missing and it may be one reason why people are getting killed.