Special Report: Danger Behind Bars


BERTIE COUNTY, N.C. (WAVY) — When you think prisoners, you know there are people watching them day in and day out to keep our community safe.

But what about those inside — the staff and corrections officers — who are locked in with those prisoners? What 10 On Your Side found out is that there are problems inside the prison walls.

In October, four prison workers at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution were killed during an attempted prison escape

And a mother who says she lost everything she had to lose — her daughter — won’t stand for another death inside a North Carolina prison.

Meggan Callahan was killed at Bertie Correctional Institution after authorities say an inmate beat her over the head with a fire extinguisher after throwing hot water in her face. Authorities say the inmate charged with the murder, Craig Wissink, intentionally set a fire and purposely targeted Callahan.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Wissink.

“I knew that she was with violent people and this was a violent place. I still didn’t think it would be as violent as it was. It didn’t take me long to realize I was dead wrong, I was so wrong,” said Wendy Callahan. “I don’t want my daughter to die in vain.”

Wendy says her daughter loved family, children, friends and her fiance, too. 

“We all have a different story of Meggan and we all knew a different side of her,” said Wendy. 

The prisoners inside the Bertie County Correctional Facility knew a different side.  Meggan started a job as a corrections officer at the age of 24. 

“Yes, my daughter was killed and that’s the reason I was doing this, but there’s a complete injustice being done,” said Wendy. 

Five months after Meggan’s murder, four workers at the Pasquotank correctional facility were killed — again by prisoners. 

Meggan knew of a victim, Geoffrey Howe.  His aunt Nancy Peck says she still wants justice for her nephew. 

“It could have all been avoided, all of this. My nephew could have lived his life with his 3-year-old daughter, he could have been to a first day of kindergarten and on and on and on.”

It is the plea from another family who lost a son to the hands of a prisoner inside a North Carolina state prison, and it was enough for Representative Bob Steinburg. 

“These are emails and letters from corrections officers fearing for their lives when they walk into prison,” said Steinburg. “These folks feels trapped. No one knows what’s wrong with these places more than the people who are working the front lines [and] this 78-page report, which is a damning, damning report on Pasquotank and NASH.”

The 78-page federal report delves deep into what is going on inside the prison and what needs to be fixed. 

Most glaring — at the time of the Pasquotank escape there was a 25-percent staffing shortage, a shortage 10 On Your Side has learned is still the same at Pasquotank. 

“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.”

Rep. Steinburg says the vacancies were higher. 

“It’s much higher than that. Anyone who has already told the department they want to separate, they are still shown in each prison, as being staff and available,” said Steinburg.  

In the report, it states 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.

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.

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 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.

“Right now management is saying everything is fine and we’ve got everything under control, and that is not true,” said Steinburg. “I get emails and letters and phone calls from officers and inmates who are concerned about safety.”

So, 10 On Your Side took the concerns to management. 

Reuben Young, Chief Deputy Secretary Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice, took over effective December 29, 2017, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety’s website

He tells 10 On Your Side he believes the federal report on Pasquotank is “fair.”

“I think there are things we undertook before the report came out and things we will continue to do as we try to improve our system,” said Deputy Young. 

A responsibility he says he doesn’t take lightly. He says there are 17,000 employees to look out for. 

“I take that responsibility seriously,” said Deputy Young. “I take it personally.”

And his response to: Are the prisons safe?

“What makes it safe is hiring good employees and giving them proper training, giving them the equipment they need but lets face it, what we are dealing with are violent offenders.”

And has the report changed anything? Young says yes. 

He says more training, they are working to correct places in the prison where there are line of sight issues, and now all North Carolina prisons operate under one policy for corrections enterprises under the Division of Prisons — something that wasn’t done before. 

“I agree, it can’t happen again, and it shouldn’t happen again and it shouldn’t of happened then but it did and we have to do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Young said. 

Still Representative Steinburg, who continues to hear from officers and inmates, says the prison system needs help. 

“We’ve had five murders, how can you just kick the can down the road and hope this doesn’t happen again?” said Steinburg. 

Wendy Callahan still thinks the prison system is ‘criminal’ and still wants change.  It’s her fight – a mother’s fight for her daughter, but also for the hundreds of people in the same uniform who need a voice.

“I don’t have anything to lose, I lost what I had to lose so I can have a voice in this and have no repercussions.”

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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