Gov. Cooper suspends inmate work program where prison break attempt happened

Justin Smith and Veronica Darden (Photos courtesy NC Department of Public Safety)

ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. - Gov. Roy Cooper announced Friday a inmate work program at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City halted as the investigation continues into Thursday's attempted escape that left two correctional officers dead.

"We are all shocked and horrified by this violent attack on prison employees and our thoughts continue to be with the victims and their loved ones," Cooper said Friday. "While we are grateful for the officers' work to prevent the inmates' escape, we know our prisons must be made more secure, including for those who work there.

"I've directed state prison officials to take immediate action to improve safety, including suspending the inmate work program at the site where the attack happened, increasing officers in areas where inmates work, and ordering a safety review of all inmate work programs."

Two prison employees were killed and several others injured in the attempted prison break. The incident happened when a fire broke out at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution's specialty sewing plant around 3 p.m., NCDPS said. About 30 inmates work for Correction Enterprises producing embroidered logo items, safety vests and other sewn items.

While the fire was eventually put out, several inmates attempted to escape but failed. The prison is under lockdown with all inmates accounted for.

DPS named the two who were killed just after midnight Friday. Correctional officer Justin Smith, 35, provided security in the Correction Enterprises Specialty Sewing Plant. He had worked as a correctional officer since 2012.

Correction Enterprises Manager Veronica Darden, 50, supervised inmates working in the Specialty Sewing Plant. She had been a Correction Enterprises employee since 2007 and previously worked as a correctional officer.

Pasquotank County Sheriff Randy Cartwright said investigators believe four inmates planned their breakout by starting a fire inside a sewing plant to divert guards, then running through a loading dock to reach the fence. The plot was foiled and all inmates have since been accounted for. The facility is still in lockdown.

Two correctional officers and a prison mechanic are still in the hospital. Seven other prison workers were injured, taken to the hospital, treated and released.

Also on Friday, Cooper ordered all North Carolina state flags to be lowered to half-staff. The move will continue through sunset on Monday.

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