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DOJ Report: Staff Shortage, Cut Corners At NC Prison Where 4 Died

An escape attempt at Pasquotank Prison ended in the murders of four prison employees.
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The North Carolina prison where four employees were killed during the deadliest breakout attempt in state history was so understaffed that workers cut corners in ways that created opportunities for mayhem, according to a federal report released Thursday.

Workers at Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City were forced to maintain oversight and prison services despite one out of four jobs being vacant, and thus grew complacent about security measures, an evaluation team with the National Institute of Corrections said.

The arm of the U.S. Justice Department was called in by state prison officials after October's failed escape attempt left two correctional officers, a vocational instructor and a maintenance worker dead. Four inmates have been charged with murder and could face the death penalty if convicted.

"The facility was trying to maintain a normal prison operation with a 25 percent deficient (sic) in staffing," the report said. The prison's use of overtime has produced staff burnout, complacency and taking of shortcuts."

Understaffed prison workers failed to keep track of tools, metal shards and hazardous chemicals, the report said. It added inmates also were allowed to create hiding places outside the view of video cameras and that doors were left unlocked. Inmates were able to roam unobserved near the prison-industries sewing plant, where some set a fire to create a diversion during their breakout attempt.

Inmates leaving the sewing plant were supposed to pass through a metal detector and be stripped searched, but the body inspections took place only about 20 percent of the time, the report said. It noted hacksaw blades, scissors, and hammers were given out by an inmate to other prisoners.

"There are a number of things that are troubling," state public safety secretary Erik Hooks said before the report's release.

He declined to comment on the report's finding that complacency had enveloped employees working among dangerous inmates.

After starting the fire inside the Pasquotank sewing plant, fleeing inmates took an elevator to a ground-floor loading dock and ran into the prison yard in an effort to reach the fence, officials have said. One inmate got as far as a barbed-wire fence around the prison, but got snagged and was forced to give up.

An employee at the prison perimeter fired a weapon while inmates were on the fence, the report said, but that gun was never collected as evidence and a shooting review that is supposed to investigate whether the officer acted appropriately was never conducted.

Since the Pasquotank slayings and the April killing of another correctional officer at nearby Bertie Correctional Institution, the state's prisons have instituted reforms and increased security. Hooks and state Prison Director Kenneth Lassiter told legislators Thursday they were spending more than $16 million to issue all 13,000 prison employees stab-resistant undershirts and personal panic buttons to employees as well as to every volunteer and visitor entering the walls.

Prison officials indicated they will need lots of money to hire and properly train enough correctional officers to manage the state's 36,000 inmates. Sentencing reforms in 2011 have cut the number of inmates by 3,000, but nearly one out of five still serving time suffer some form of mental illness and prisons have a greater concentration of evil, Lassiter said.

The result of the sentencing revamp "is putting people behind bars who are meaner, they're more aggressive. And our prison staffing was not built for these inmates," he said.

The state's 55 prisons need to hire and train an additional 1,300 correctional officers in addition to filling hundreds of vacant positions to adequately supervise inmates around the clock every day of the year, Lassiter said.