NC prison leaders on leave following scathing federal report
Administrators of Pasquotank Correctional Institution were put on leave after a report on the deadly escape attempt
By Jeff Hampton
ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. — The top two administrators of Pasquotank Correctional Institution were put on leave following a federal report that described widespread security lapses during a deadly escape attempt last year.
Prison Administrator Felix Taylor, and Colbert Respass, assistant superintendent of operations, were placed on paid leave pending the outcome of a separate internal investigation, said Pamela Walker, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.
She would not comment on whether the federal report had anything to do with Taylor and Respass being put on leave. She and Jerry Higgins, a spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, declined to comment on the report.
Disciplinary action could come to more state prison officials as a result of the scathing report, said Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan County, who represents Pasquotank County.
“This is just damning,” he said. “This report will probably just blow the lid off of everything. If you are in management, you have to be held responsible for some of this.”
Dennis Daniels, recently the superintendent at Maury Correctional Institution and a former assistant superintendent at Pasquotank, has been temporarily assigned to replace Taylor.
Four prison employees were killed in October when four inmates attempted an escape. The victims were killed with tools such as hammers and scissors available in the prison’s sewing shop where the inmates worked. All four inmates are charged with first-degree murder and could face the death penalty.
The National Institute of Corrections inspected the prison in November and released the report on Jan. 25.
Among the findings in the report:
Three staff members and one correctional officer were overseeing 30 inmates, including 12 classified as “close custody,” requiring higher security, in the sewing plant.
There were 84 positions vacant at the prison, a quarter of the total recommended staff. Employees interviewed by NIC overwhelmingly reported that the escape happened because of the severe staff shortage.
Dangerous tools were distributed by inmates rather than prison staff as required. The day before the escape, inmates had checked out tools such as 6-inch-blade scissors, two screwdrivers, a ball-peen hammer and a claw hammer.
Prisoners were able to come and go from the sewing area without a search.
Though not accessed during the escape, a cabinet of guns and ammunition at the entry gatehouse was left unlocked.
The staff lacked proper training in emergency response and did not carry personal alarm systems.
The sewing plant supervisor left unlocked a door that led from the sewing plant to a hallway that enabled prisoners to leave the work area. A door to the back dock and the exterior of the prison was also left unlocked, allowing the prisoners to get outside during the escape.
Inmates could hide behind storage racks, and security cameras could not record an area where flammable materials were kept. The inmates set a fire as a distraction before the escape attempt.
The sewing plant supervisor acknowledged panicking and not knowing what to do when the room filled with smoke, leading to a delay in sounding the alarm.
A state audit of the Pasquotank prison in February 2017 found 100 percent compliance.
“It was alluded to during interviews, that there is a ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ approach when it comes to the inter-department security audits,” the report said.
After the escape, questions arose about how violent offenders got assigned to work with dangerous tools. The four inmates charged had committed violent crimes including homicide.
The NIC report referenced a 2010 class action lawsuit that brought about changes to the North Carolina inmate work assignment manual. The criteria for getting a prison job changed to “first come, first serve” from a more rigorous process of elimination that might have kept dangerous criminals from the sewing shop, the report said.
Steinburg has been outspoken in his criticism of how the North Carolina prisons were run before the escape attempt . An inmate was charged with killing an officer at the Bertie Correctional Institution in April. The total of five deaths make 2017 the most deadly in North Carolina prison history.
More than 150 people from inmates to staff to family members have contacted Steinburg since the escape attempt, he said. He was surprised to hear from inmates concerned about the safety of correctional officers.
That is a testament to how bad the state’s prison system is, he said.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “It has been a good ol’ boy system for a long time. People are holding these jobs not because they are qualified but as political payback.”
©2018 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)