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Prison guard death raises questions

By Ames Alexander and Gavin Off The Charlotte Observer (TNS)

CHARLOTTE Bertie Correctional Institution was understaffed the month that Sgt. Meggan Callahan was killed there allegedly by an inmate who beat her to death with a fire extinguisher. State figures show that in April, when Callahan died, roughly one of every five correctional officer positions at the eastern North Carolina prison was vacant. Bertie isn t the only state prison with staffing problems. Statewide, about 16 percent of officer positions are vacant.

It s unclear whether better staffing would have saved Callahan s life. But some experts interviewed by the Observer said that s a possibility. Brian Dawe, executive director of the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network (ACOIN), said Bertie like most of the nation s prisons appeared to be badly understaffed, based on the numbers that state prison officials provided to the Observer. Dawe, whose group shares research to help correctional officers, said that prison leaders who operate without sufficient staff roll the dice with people s lives.

And this time it came up snake eyes, he said.

Said Gary Harkins, former research and information director for ACOIN: People can get killed when you don t have enough staff. It s as simple as that. David Guice, the state s chief deputy secretary for adult correction and juvenile justice, said he does not yet know whether better staffing at Bertie would have made any difference the day that Callahan was killed. But he said that Gov. Roy Cooper has asked him to review the circumstances to ensure this doesn t happen again.

Prison leaders plan to examine many factors, including staffing patterns, Guice said. Many of North Carolina s maximum-security prisons are operating dangerously short of staff, current and former correctional officers told the Observer. One former officer, who rushed to a colleague s defense after she was slashed in the neck by an inmate at Lanesboro Correctional Institution, said the attack might have been prevented with more staff. At Bertie, Callahan was responding to a fire set inside a trash can on the evening of April 26 when an inmate beat her to death with the fire extinguisher she d brought to douse the flames, state officials say. Inmate Craig Wissink, who has been serving a life sentence for murder since 2004, has been charged with first-degree murder in connection with Callahan s death.

When Callahan was attacked, two other officers were nearby, according to Anthony Jernigan, who heads the State Bureau of Investigation office that covers northeastern North Carolina. One of those officers fell and hurt her knee when she went to Callahan s defense, Jernigan said. About 60 inmates were also near Callahan when she was attacked on April 26, Jernigan said. Experts said that better staffing at the prison likely would have meant more eyes and ears on what inmates were doing, faster response times and more officers on the scene.

They might have had enough officers to subdue that inmate before he got that fire extinguisher from the sergeant, said Robert Webster, a former captain at two North Carolina maximum-security prisons.

When you don t have adequate staff to manage the inmates, and there s an incident, unfortunately people can get hurt and sometimes people even die, Webster said.

Severely understaffed

State prison officials refused to say how many staff were on duty the day Callahan died. They contended those numbers constitute sensitive public security information. But prison officials did release the monthly figures, which show that the prison had 211 officers available to work in April. Those officers must cover two shifts and a number of them are off, sick or on vacation at any given time so only a fraction of the total staff was likely available to work the day shift on April 26. Bertie now houses about 935 inmates. At other prisons of comparable size, officers told the Observer, it s common for about 50 or 60 officers to work the day shift.

There are no national standards for minimum staffing at prisons, experts say. But Harkins said the numbers provided by North Carolina suggest Bertie was severely understaffed. A prison with 1,000 inmates should have a total of at least 300 to 350 officers, he said.

If you had more staff, then you might have been looking at hurt staff instead of dead staff (on the day Callahan died), Harkins said.

It s so dangerous

At Lanesboro, 45 miles southeast of Charlotte, it was common for 42 officers to watch about 1,200 prisoners on the night shift, according to Gregory McCoy, who worked there as a correctional officer from 2009 to 2016. That works out to about one officer for every 29 inmates.

It s not safe, McCoy said. All it would take is for five or ten guys to decide we re going to take over the prison. And we don t have enough staff to fight back. Early on the morning of Nov. 15, 2013, Lanesboro had just four officers in the chow hall to oversee the 100 inmates who were there for breakfast, McCoy said. Had there been more, he said, one female officer might never have been assaulted.

McCoy heard the officer curse and saw her struggling with an inmate. He ran over and subdued the prisoner. But by that time, the officer was already bleeding profusely. Inmate Donny Mosley, who is serving time for second-degree murder and robbery with a dangerous weapon, had slashed her face and neck with a razor-like weapon.

I think if I hadn t gotten over there in time, (Mosley) probably would have cut her throat, McCoy said. The gashes in the officer s face and neck required 39 stitches.

But if another staff member had been standing beside the officer that morning, there s a possibility (Mosley) would have kept walking, McCoy said. At Polk Correctional Institution, north of Durham, two or three officers are routinely put in charge of monitoring more than 200 inmates in the chow hall, said Sierra Gravitte, an officer who this month resigned from the prison after four years on the job.

It s so dangerous, Gravitte said. It puts officers lives in danger to be honest.

The inmates literally say, You all are understaffed, so if we wanted to, we could overtake this prison. Recruiting challenges

Finding people who are willing to work as prison officers isn t easy. The pay is low an average of the about $35,000 annually at maximum-security prisons and the work is dangerous and demanding.

Guice, the prison leader, acknowledged that the state faces significant staffing challenges. Many of the large maximum-security prisons such as Bertie and Lanesboro are located in rural areas, where recruiting can be difficult. State prison leaders say they are holding many hiring events and partnering with schools and military bases to fill jobs. And they say pay increases approved by the legislature in 2015 will also help with recruiting. The state has recently made offers to about 400 officer candidates, so the vacancy rate will likely drop, Guice said. But while North Carolina typically hires about 1,800 to 2,000 prison officers per year, it usually loses about that many as well.

We ve got to find a way to retain the people who work for us, Guice said. We ve got a lot of folks who are not staying with us.

Prison leaders say they have begun assigning new officers career readiness coaches, who provide pointers on dealing with inmates, keeping themselves safe and attaining career goals. Prison leaders say that when staff vacancies at a prison rise, they make adjustments, such as moving prisoners, reducing inmate programs and sending fewer staff members to special training. Over-reliance on overtime?

To cope with the shortages, many prisons have also paid hundreds of thousands each year for overtime. Statewide, correctional officers received more than $12 million in overtime in 2015, the Observer found. Some correctional officers have more than doubled their income by working overtime. One Polk officer made $29,800 in salary in 2015. She earned an extra $36,500 in overtime that year, records show. In 2014, a Lanesboro officer was paid $29,800 but made another $35,600 in overtime.

Officers said excessive overtime work can leave them burned out and exhausted. Angela Smith, who worked as an officer at Tabor Correctional Institution from 2010 to 2014, said she was often asked to work overtime because the prison was so understaffed.

When your shift starts at 5:30 a.m. and you work 12 hours and you get told you re held over till 9 (p.m.) you re not alert. You re tired. Your morale goes down, she said. The staffing shortages also put officers in danger, Smith said.

You can only spread people so thin, she said. If inmates wanted to jump another inmate or take somebody out that day, that would be the time to do it when you re understaffed.

Cyber threat training, other events a boost to community

Wannacry is the newest cyber threat that captured attention worldwide over the last week. Forward Sheridan continues to bring educational and training opportunities to all businesses in northeast Wyoming regarding cyber threat strategies. On June 1, the Federal Bureau of Investigation will host InfraGard training at the downtown location of Sheridan Memorial Hospital. Our speakers will be focused on issues with health care records and implications; Barb Grofe is a nationally recognized expert in cyber security. Secondly, thanks to Greta Knapp at Bank of the West, we ll have Mike Borowczak, Ph.D, from the University of Wyoming. He is the director of CyberSecurity Education and Research. Borowczak will articulate the efforts at the University of Wyoming and how cyber threats impact the internet of things (things like your cellphone, car electronics, etc.). Please check out the Forward Sheridan Facebook page or sign up at www.eventbrite.com/e/infragard-sheridan-wyoming-training-tickets-34327466376 or look at the FBI InfraGard website calendar of events.

Several recent events that typify our efforts to bring people to Sheridan include the annual Snicker s Cup soccer tournament, which was a banner success at the Big Horn Equestrian Center. The event set the stage for ideal multiple game soccer events, which will be continued this weekend with the Wyoming High School state soccer tournaments. The facility at the BHEC is building a broad-based notoriety for excellent setting, expansive vistas and very welcoming area that is difficult to match within a 400 mile radius. Next up, which is another marker, is the Bighorn Mountain trail run, which will take place in mid-June. The socio-economic impact is that many of the distance runners will gather in the Sheridan area several days prior to acclimate. Forward Sheridan witnessed this via a brief consumer tour at one of our local breweries, where I visited with 10 runners representing three states. This is an opportunity for those athletes to meet in a friendly locale, enjoy downtown and catch up. The event is an opportunity to showcase downtown Sheridan and our community. Both events require countless hours of volunteer work and orchestration for which Sheridan residents come to the forefront.

Another positive event was the closing meeting for the Outdoor Recreation Task Force that occurred last week. This is a framework driven by the state of Wyoming to assess, quantify and form a method for Wyoming to manage and capitalize on the active tense of outdoor recreation. We as a community are very much a part of outdoor recreation. We appreciate the effort and time Mark Weitz has taken to represent Sheridan and his specific interests on the task force.

Another note of appreciation goes to Colin Betzler and his efforts and successes with the Sheridan Community Land Trust. His change of guard will set a high standard of performance and expectations, but more importantly, the expectation of the cohesive and inclusive approach he used day in and day out.

Jay Stender is the executive director of Forward Sheridan.

Community College of RI salutes risk-takers at 2017 commencement

CCRI President Meghan Hughes talked about risk-taking Friday when the college awarded 1,787 degrees and certificates at commencement ceremonies in a field house on the school’s Knight Campus in Warwick.

Mark Reynolds Journal Staff Writer mrkrynlds

Community College of Rhode Island President Meghan Hughes talked about risk-taking Friday when the college awarded 1,787 degrees and certificates at commencement ceremonies in a field house on the school’s Knight Campus in Warwick. More specifically, Hughes talked about the risk-taking described in Adam Grant’s “Originals,” a book that studies risk-takers who have changed the world, according to a news release issued by the college.

“Even if we don’t see ourselves as super-creative, we have insights every day about how the world around us could be better,” Hughes said. “Most of us don’t act on these ideas. We’re afraid we’re going to be rejected, or that we’re going to waste our time and no one is going to hear us. But it’s that moment, where you have to decide whether to do something, that’s where risk-taking comes in.”

One form of risk-taking is making a decision to take action even without certainty about every single part of the plan or certainty about whether the result will be successful. Hughes shared the stories of two graduating students, two risk-takers, Alyson Perry, who is an airwoman with the Rhode Island Air National Guard, and Martha De Leon, who studied English as a second language at CCRI after emigrating from the Dominican Republic. Perry is headed to Rhode Island College to pursue a bachelor’s degree in public administration and study homeland security. De Leon hopes to earn her bachelor’s degree at Rhode Island College and to teach English as a second language to other students.

“We have learned many lessons throughout our academic journey here at CCRI,” said the school’s commencement speaker, Jazmin Delacruz, who is bound for the University of Rhode Island. “Today I would like to provide one final message. Our destinies are not predetermined; we are the authors of our own story. This is exemplified by the number of us sitting here today, despite the many obstacles we had to overcome. I say, let no one or nothing stand in your way of achieving your dreams and goals. We are the Class of 2017. Let us go forward and change the world.”

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On Twitter: @mrkrynlds

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