Report: Prison guard died amid training, staffing worries

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - One of the three North Carolina correctional officers watching roughly 250 prisoners on the day one was killed had not undergone a four-week basic training course that includes instruction on how to subdue an attacking inmate, a newspaper reported Thursday.

Sgt. Meggan Callahan, 29, was beaten to death in April with a fire extinguisher in the understaffed unit she was responsible for guarding at Bertie Correctional Institution in Windsor, about 45 miles (70 kilometers) northeast of Greenville. Just an hour before she was attacked Callahan confided to a supervisor on the floor below hers that she worried her officers were not prepared if an inmate attacked, The Charlotte Observer reported .

"She didn't know which ones would have her back because they were new and they were not properly trained," Sgt. Joe Gurganus said.

Beginning in September, new correctional officers began receiving basic training right after an initial week of orientation at the prison where they work, state Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Pamela Walker said Thursday.

The accelerated training schedule for new guards is among steps state prison officials have taken during the deadliest year in state history for prison employees. In addition to Callahan, four employees of Pasquotank Correctional Institution were killed in October.

Other new measures include issuing batons in addition to pepper spray to correctional officers assigned to medium-custody units like the one where Callahan worked, the state Department of Public Safety said. The striking weapons were previously issued to guards in close-custody units.

Prisons also have started planning and installing additional fencing to make it harder for someone outside to throw contraband items over the top to inmates inside. Officials also have dedicated money to install cellphone detection devices at all prisons by February, the department said.

State officials also must confront the self-reinforcing problems of low pay and high risk. Pay for correctional officers in maximum-security North Carolina prisons is about $8,000 less than the national average.

Only four of Callahan's officers were working alongside her on April 26 when she was killed, according to a Department of Labor report. That's half the recommended number, several current and former officers told the newspaper. Two of those four officers were occupied by routine prison tasks at the time of the attack. More than a dozen current and former Bertie officers said the prison had been dangerously short-staffed for a long time.

"The inmates pretty much understood that they could take over because we didn't have enough staff," said former officer Derrick Matthews, who until recently worked on Callahan's unit. "They'd say things like, 'We know we have the upper hand.' And then you think, 'They're pretty much right.'"

A prison official told Labor Department investigators that "all post (sic) were properly manned" when Callahan was killed, according to a state document.

State officials refused a request to interview top Bertie officials, including David Millis, the prison's acting administrator at the time of Callahan's death, the newspaper said.

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Information from: The Charlotte Observer, http://www.charlotteobserver.com

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