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Officials: NC prison deaths investigation may not be fully released

Officials may never fully explain the prison lapses that led to Sgt. Meggan Callahan's death and the deadly prison escape attempt in Elizabeth City


By Emery P. Dalesio
Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina corrections officials may never fully explain the prison lapses that led to the beating death of a guard nearly eight months ago and a later, deadlier attack in October, the state agency's top leader said.

Department of Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks said his agency's Office of Special Investigations has completed a review into the April killing at Bertie Correctional Institution of Sgt. Meggan Callahan. A similar internal investigation of the failed escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Institution in October that left four employees dead is underway, he said in an interview.

In this Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017 photo, police vehicles are seen outside Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City, N.C. (Thomas J. Turney /The Daily Advance via AP)
In this Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017 photo, police vehicles are seen outside Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City, N.C. (Thomas J. Turney /The Daily Advance via AP)

Hooks said he will decide later how much of what investigators uncovered about why and how the workers were killed will become public and how much to keep secret.

"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.

Withholding some or all of the findings might be justified to protect security, conform to privacy laws protecting inmates and preserve evidence that could be presented at future murder trials for five inmates accused in the two bloody incidents, Hooks said. But details about how the attacks unfolded and why are less likely, he said.

"Whereas I will use that information to inform me - and 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 plan bothers a state lawmaker who represents Elizabeth City, where Pasquotank Correctional is located and who says he's talked to scores of prison workers since the deadliest attacks by inmates in state history.

Republican Rep. Bob Steinburg said Thursday he's heard frequently that prison employees regularly rewrite reports to cast operations in a favorable light.

"This is the largest tragedy, biggest tragedy" in the history of the state prison system, he said. "They need to be accountable. And just saying that this is going to threaten security is, to me, weak."

Reversing a staffing shortage that makes prisons more dangerous for everyone won't be possible unless potential employees understand failings have been identified and can see when they are fixed, Steinburg said.

"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," he said.

Hooks said his reluctance is partly due to caution he could taint pending murder trials of the man accused of killing Callahan and the four Pasquotank inmates facing death penalty trials for slaying two correctional officers, a vocational instructor and a maintenance worker.

That could mean some details of the Pasquotank attack could be withheld for years. The three men who faced death penalty trials this year in North Carolina were all convicted about three years after committing their crimes.

Hooks expects to release some or all of a separate report on safety and security at Pasquotank conducted by the National Institute of Corrections, an advisory arm of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

One change coming among the prison reforms expected next year include keeping better track of how often inmates attack other prisoners.

"Our system has not historically captured that information in a manner that allows us to pull that data cleanly. We are evaluating our systems and making changes to ensure that we are able to track those assaults more accurately in 2018," DPS spokeswoman Pamela Walker said in an email this week, two months after The Associated Press asked for data.

In the year before Callahan's death, one Bertie inmate was killed and two others hospitalized after stabbings by other criminals, according to media reports. At Pasquotank, detectives this year investigated three cases of inmates assaulting other prisoners, the sheriff's department said.

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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