Four employees at North Carolina’s Pasquotank Correctional Institution were killed during an ill-conceived escape attempt last year. The four prisoners involved in the incident, who were caught before they left the prison grounds, have been charged with first-degree murder.
The deadly October 12, 2017 escape plan originated in the prison’s sewing plant, a Correction Enterprises industry program where prisoners made safety vests and embroidered logos onto clothing. [See: PLN, May 2018, p.14]. Guard Justin Smith was the only corrections officer overseeing over 30 prisoners working at the plant at the time. Prisoner Wisezah Buckman, 29, who was serving a 32-year sentence for murder, jumped at an invitation to join the escape.
In a letter to the Charlotte Observer, Buckman said he was sitting at his assigned sewing machine and joking with another prisoner when “an invitation [was] extended towards me, which I pondered and considered and concluded that all I want to do is see my children and tell them I love them.”
Around 2:43 p.m., the escape attempt began to unfold. Two prisoners – Mikel Brady, 28, serving a 24-year term for shooting a state trooper during a 2013 traffic stop, and Seth J. Frazier, 33, completing the last year of a seven-year sentence for first-degree burglary – assaulted plant manager Veronica Darden, who died from her injuries.
Buckman was handed a claw hammer by Brady, and the two men joined prisoner Jonathan M. Monk, 30, to attack Smith in a nearby storage area, killing him.
Around 3 p.m., a fire erupted in the sewing plant – set by Brady as a diversion. Shortly thereafter “chaos” ensued, according to Pasquotank Sheriff Randy Cartwright.
Brady and Monk took an elevator to a loading dock, where they attacked guard Wendy Shannon and maintenance worker Gregory Howe, both of whom later died. Buckman and Frazier then entered the loading dock area with a cart filled with tools to aid in the escape.
“The role that I played ... was one of an escort of a dolly (like what you see at a department store to load bulky supplies),” Buckman wrote.
But before the prisoners could reach the first perimeter fence, “a swarm of correctional staff” was after them. Guard Jonathan Stormer tried to subdue Monk, but one of the prisoners stabbed him in the back three times with either a screwdriver or scissors, resulting in non-fatal injuries. Another guard used his baton to stop the attack.
Buckman tried to climb the fence but became caught in razor wire and ended up hanging upside down. Stormer sprayed him in the face with pepper spray. Buckman fell and ran a short distance before other guards caught and handcuffed him. In his letter, Buckman described the razor wire as “like teeth from a great white shark.” He required more than 50 stitches and about 25 staples to close his cuts.
According to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS), other staff members were hospitalized and several prisoners were injured during the incident.
In the wake of the escape attempt, both the facility and local schools were locked down, and officials later conducted a contraband sweep at the Pasquotank prison. The sewing plant was permanently closed and its equipment moved to the medium-security Pender Correctional Institution near Wilmington. All prisoners employed in industry programs underwent a security review, and over 250 convicted of violent offenses were removed from Correction Enterprises jobs. The director of Correction Enterprises was reassigned. Prison officials announced they would spend $12.5 million to purchase body alarms for prison employees and visitors. All four prisoners involved in the attempted escape were moved to other facilities and charged with first-degree murder. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
In October 2017, according to the state Department of Public Records, more than 28 percent of guard positions at the Pasquotank prison were vacant compared to 17 percent three years earlier, which left gaps in the supervision of prisoners held at the 729-bed facility. One unnamed prison employee called the work environment a “war zone.”
In April 2018, the state Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) released the results of its investigation into the incident. In addition to understaffing in the sewing plant, DPS failed to provide security cameras in the area where Darden was murdered, the report said. The agency suggested that DPS pay a $7,000 fine.
The OSHA report reflected many of the same concerns cited in a 78-page report released several months earlier by the National Institute of Corrections, part of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Along with an April 26, 2017 attack that killed Sgt. Meggan Callahan, 29, in an understaffed unit at the Bertie Correctional Institution, the deadly escape attempt at Pasquotank prompted state lawmakers to take steps to reform North Carolina’s prison system. The prisoner who killed Callahan by beating her to death with a fire extinguisher, Craig Wissink, has been charged with first-degree murder and faces the death penalty.
“The General Assembly needs to look into this,” said state Rep. Bob Steinburg. “I don’t think we should be looking at this just as a way to prevent incidents like this from happening again, we need to be charged with the task of creating prison reform from top to bottom.”
He added, “How is it allowed to spiral downward to such a level where these sorts of everyday things, the common sense things, were being neglected, that safety was just taken for granted?”
A prison reform board was instituted to provide advice to DPS officials with respect to improving staff training, assigning deputies to patrol perimeter fences and rotating prisoner work assignments.
In August 2018, DPS Director Kenneth Lassiter announced two major changes to state prison policies after 11 guards were assaulted by prisoners between February and March. First, solitary confinement can now last up to a year; also, visitation privileges can be revoked for up to two years as a disciplinary sanction.
“We must reinforce zero tolerance against an offender assaulting our staff and let everyone know there will be consequences,” Lassiter said.
Given the five prison employees slain in 2017, though, it would seem that increased punishment for prisoners who commit disciplinary offenses is too little, too late.
Sources: Charlotte Observer, CBS News, Raleigh News & Observer, WSOC-TV, www.businessinsider.com, www.observer.com, www.wbtv.com
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