Commentary

Editorial blasts Berger and Moore over cynical response to prison tragedy

In case you missed it, be sure to check out the lead editorial in today’s Charlotte Observer“Phil Berger and Tim Moore play politics in the face of tragedy.” In it, the authors rightfully blast the two legislative leaders for their convoluted attempt to deflect blame that ought rightfully to be directed their way for the recent tragic murder of a prison guard. According to Berger and Moore, it’s not the horrific conditions and pathetic underfunding that plague our prison system that are at the heart of the problem; it’s the general demise of the death penalty (and the supposed failure of Governor Cooper and Attorney General Stein to aggressively push for its reinstatement) that are to blame. Here’s the conclusion to the Observer editorial:

“North Carolina’s de facto death penalty moratorium – which is in place for reasons far beyond Cooper and Stein – has little to do with the deaths of the four prison employees at Pasquotank Correctional Institution or that of officer Meggan Callahan at Bertie Correctional Institution.

The real problem, as multiple experts have explained to Observer reporters Ames Alexander and Gavin Off, is skeletal staffing, numerous vacancies and minimal training for officers who are put in dangerous situations. Low pay exacerbates the state’s inability to attract people to the job.

Justin Smith was the only correctional officer in a sewing plant at the Pasquotank prison watching more than 30 inmates who had access to scissors and other potential weapons when an escape attempt began. In Bertie, Callahan had half the number of staffers under her as she was supposed to have when an inmate beat her to death with a fire extinguisher. About a quarter to a fifth of positions have been vacant at those prisons.

A national study of prison management by Duke University released last week urges North Carolina to increase hiring, in part through referral and signing bonuses. It also found that North Carolina needs to beef up its officer training, which is shorter than that of most other states Duke reviewed. It also cited the state’s low pay for prison officers, which is about $8,000 below the national average at maximum security prisons despite recent raises.

Rep. Bob Steinburg, a Republican who represents Pasquotank County, is wisely pushing for these kinds of solutions and others.

Those are the kinds of reforms that the state’s prisons and its vulnerable officers need. What it doesn’t need are the legislature’s so-called leaders trying to score political points amid tragedies.”

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