Dozens of NC prison employees debilitated since deadly escape attempt
North Carolina's understaffed prisons remain a dangerous place for employees six months after the escape attempt
By Emily P. Dalesio
RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina's understaffed prisons remain a dangerous place for employees six months after the bloodiest escape attempt in state history left four workers dead, according to agency data and separate case reports.
About three dozen workers at the state's correctional facilities have been assaulted so badly that they have lost work time, prison officials said in response to a public records request from The Associated Press. Leading the official list of assaults is the Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City, where eight workers have been badly harmed since the fatal breakout attempt there on Oct. 12.
The list provided to the AP, which covered 34 assaults through March 27, did not include an attack at a Morganton prison that hospitalized a worker with stab or slash wounds. Officials from the state Department of Public Safety did not say why when asked Monday or during the previous two weeks.
On March 28, three more workers were assaulted in two attacks at Maury Correctional Institution in Greene County. It's not clear whether any of them were injured badly enough to miss work.
Correctional Officer Deborah Ezuma said the frequency of inmates assaulting workers has grown more common in the past two or three years than at any time in her 20-year prisons career.
"Our department has gotten extremely dangerous in recent years," said Ezuma, a guard at high-security Polk Correctional Institution in Butner. Previously, it was extremely rare for an inmate to touch prison staff, she said. "Now it's nothing to touch a staff" member.
Prison officials have said since the four Pasquotank slayings and the beating death of a correctional officer at Bertie Correctional Institution last year, guards must work with a more concentrated cluster of violent criminals.
Sentencing reforms in 2011 have cut the number of inmates by 3,000, but nearly 1 in 5 of the 36,000 still serving time suffer some form of mental illness, state Prison Director Kenneth Lassiter said in January.
State prison officials have not provided the details of each assault, or how many inmates have been attacked, both of which the AP requested six weeks ago. The agency has not effectively tracked data in the past on how often inmates are attacked, safety department spokeswoman Pamela Walker said Monday. She said officials have begun to collect that information and hope to make it available soon.
According to data provided by the prisons agency, four assaults on workers took place at Polk between the date of the Pasquotank slayings and March 27. Four staffers of the Marion Correctional Institution in Marion, and five at Tabor Correctional Institution in Tabor City, were also hurt during that time frame. Both prisons include units housing high-security inmates.The agency recorded just one serious assault at Lanesboro prison, the maximum-security prison about 45 miles (70 kilometers) southeast of Charlotte where dozens of officers and inmates have been attacked since it opened in 2004.
Another happened two weeks ago, when a correctional sergeant responding to a report of an inmate being assaulted by other prisoners was stabbed or slashed with an inmate's makeshift blade. The male officer was treated at a hospital with injuries that were not believed to be life-threatening, Lassiter said.
Lanesboro, the state's largest with about 1,800 male inmates, will soon be converted to a women's prison under a reorganization that marks one way prison officials are trying to improve safety and security.
In January, more than 1 in 3 officer positions at Lanesboro were vacant. More than a quarter of correctional officer positions at both Pasquotank and Bertie were vacant last fall.