2 Employees Dead in Failed North Carolina Prison Breakout

by: Emery P. Dalesio Associated Press
/ (North Carolina Department of Public Safety via AP) /
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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Inmates at a North Carolina prison plotted an escape bid knowing they would have to hurt some prison employees, ultimately leaving two dead and a dozen other workers or fellow inmates injured, the investigating sheriff said Friday.

Investigators believe four inmates planned the foiled breakout attempt Thursday afternoon from Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City by starting a fire inside a sewing plant to divert guards, then running through a loading dock to reach the fence, Pasquotank County Sheriff Randy Cartwright said.

These undated photos made available by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety shows Corrections Officer Justin Smith and Corrections Enterprises Manager Veronica Darden. Authorities identified Smith and Darden as the two employees killed Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017, during an attempted inmate escape from a North Carolina prison. (North Carolina Department of Public Safety via AP)

“We’re fairly comfortable that at least four had a plan to attempt this escape and knew to do that some people were going to get harmed,” Cartwright said in an interview. “This was definitely not a spontaneous incident.”

Two other prison workers were in critical condition Friday and one in fair condition at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia, hospital spokesman Peter Sengenberger said via email. He said 11 others injured in the disturbance were treated and discharged from the company’s sister hospital in Elizabeth City, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south.

Stabbing or slashing wounds predominated among the injured and people were attacked at several spots along the attempted escape route, Cartwright said. Some people may have suffered smoke inhalation, but the fire didn’t cause serious burns, he said. None of the injured had gunshot wounds, according to the sheriff, but he wouldn’t say whether guards fired on inmates to stop them. Four inmates were among the injured.

Killed were prison guard Justin Smith, 35, and vocational worker Veronica Darden, 50. Autopsies are scheduled next week and state officials and the sheriff haven’t elaborated on how they died. Smith was a correctional officer at the prison’s sewing plant, where Darden trained about 30 inmates making safety vests and other embroidered items, authorities said.

None of the prison’s 725 inmates escaped, state prisons spokesman Keith Acree said. One inmate got as far as a barbed-wire fence around the prison, but got snagged and dropped to the ground as armed guards approached, Cartwright said.

North Carolina’s governor offered his condolences for the two workers killed and on Friday ordered state flags lowered to half-staff for three days.

“Those who work in our prisons do a difficult and demanding job that is critical to our safety,” Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement Thursday.

In April, a guard was killed while trying to stop a trash can fire in a dormitory at Bertie Correctional Institution, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of the Elizabeth City prison. Authorities said a male inmate wrestled the fire extinguisher from Sgt. Meggan Callahan, 29, and beat her to death.

The head of the state’s chief state employee union said North Carolina prisons are understaffed, guards and other employees are attacked regularly and legislators should reverse dangerous conditions by hiring more officers.

“Correctional officers’ safety issues have been ignored despite an assault every eight hours and we pray someone in power will finally care enough to do something,” said State Employees Association of North Carolina President Stanley Drewery, a former corrections officer. “It’s past time for the state to give these heroes the resources, training and manpower to ensure that they return home safely.”

Darden worked as a guard for one year before assuming her role with Correction Enterprises, the state prison system’s work program for inmates. The program involves almost 2,300 of the state’s nearly 38,000 inmates in an effort to give them marketable job skills in behind-bars businesses such as pressing license plates, washing clothes for customers including U.S. Veterans Affairs hospitals and growing and packaging vegetables.

The prison near the northeast North Carolina coast houses adult, male felons in both high-security and minimum-custody buildings. Minimum-security prisoners work outside the walls on road gangs and other community labor.

The complex reported other incidents this year. In April, an argument between two inmates led to one prisoner stabbing the other several times in the torso. Two months earlier, a guard was charged with trying to smuggle illegal drugs, phones and cigarettes into the prison.

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