Uplifting Black, Brown, and queer voices across the South—no matter who's in office.
After Sgt. Meggan Callahan's death at a medium custody prison in Windsor, North Carolina, we knew there would be hell to pay. Sensational murders tend to generate dread on death row because they usually renew the push for executions to resume. This time was different: a prison guard had been beaten to death with a fire extinguisher. It's generally understood that an offender who kills another inmate in prison is bound for death row; an offender who kills a prison guard would take us all with him.
At Raleigh's Central Prison (CP), my home for the last nineteen years, death row staff wore somber black ribbons in Callahan's honor. In the unit manager's office a photocopied picture of the young woman hung from a wall, beneath it a single word: REMEMBER. When staff clustered in the hallways, scowls and hard, accusatory looks twisted their faces.
On the block, some worried whether executions would begin again; nearly forty death row prisoners are out of appeals. Most dismissed the Chicken Little thinking, since a moratorium on executions is maintained by lawsuits pending in the North Carolina Supreme Court. But outrage would reach us in other ways. Under the guise of safety and security, the state's wrath would impact every prison; a murdered guard was a license for punitive reprisals throughout the penal system.
Callahan's murder was not just a lapse in security or a bad actor who took someone's life; her death was a consequence of long-standing dysfunction in North Carolina's prisons. Tough-on-crime policies of the '90s established a retributive mindset in prisons across the country, warehousing offenders in a misguided effort to deter crime. To worsen matters, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act ended federal Pell Grants for higher education in prison, cementing the idea that one's time in prison should be hell on Earth. The prison population metastasized, overburdening state budgets, and in North Carolina, undermining the Department of Public Safety's (NCDPS) ability to maintain secure prisons.
In the years leading up to Callahan's murder, plenty of signs indicated the cancer in North Carolina's penal system. In 2012, at the same prison in which Callahan died five years later, Willis Gravley hanged himself in his cell. A prisoner committing suicide is not extraordinary, except an investigation found staff failed to check Gravely's unit that night and falsified records to show they made their rounds. Six guards were fired when investigators learned this was a common practice. Gravley's death marked the fifth in three years that occurred because of staff negligence.
CP has also had problems for many years. Unit One, the most notorious solitary confinement unit in the state, was rife with abuse. Brutal cell extractions, beatings out of camera view, and prisoners pushed down flights of steps while handcuffed behind the back were common. The conditions were akin to any dungeon––mentally ill prisoners lived in their own filth, swallowing batteries and mutilating their genitals just to receive medical attention and time out of the cell.
"Brutal cell extractions, beatings out of camera view, and prisoners pushed down flights of steps while handcuffed behind the back were common."
Not until a 2013 lawsuit, joined by eight prisoners, did conditions on Unit One begin to improve, but only after a federal judge demanded changes. Although a number of guards implicated in the more egregious abuses were transferred, at least two received promotions shortly thereafter: then-warden Kenneth Lassiter and shift sergeant Brent Soucier, a man as notorious as the unit.
Around this time, a North Carolina legislative mandate required mental health experts to implement therapeutic programs for large groups of prisoners taking psychotropic medications. The reform addressed a growing awareness of the need to treat the mentally ill in and out of solitary confinement. No case better exemplified that need than the dehydration death of Michael Anthony Kerr.
A schizophrenic man held in disciplinary segregation at a close-custody prison in Taylorsville, Kerr was handcuffed in a cell without water, lying in his own waste for five days. When staff finally checked on him, Kerr was unresponsive and died before reaching the hospital. Though the state ultimately paid Kerr's family $2.5 million in a settlement and fired or disciplined at least 25 employees, most of these staff gained work at other prisons.
It takes effort not to despise those responsible for Kerr's neglect, but the real fault lies in a defective system that criminalizes mental illness and punishes those incapable of helping themselves. In 2014, the National Sherriffs Association and Treatment Advocacy Center published a joint report on the treatment of people with mental illness in prisons and jails. They found "there is probably no state where mental health services have deteriorated as much as they have in North Carolina in the past decade." Seventeen percent of the state's inmate population has a mental health diagnosis, but many of those individuals went untreated as the state outsourced prison mental health services to private providers.
Because of the 2013 NC legislative mandate and the 2014 report, mental health at CP came into greater focus. Unit One (solitary confinement), Unit Three (death row) and Unit Six (mental health unit) were assigned a Psychological Programs Manager, Dr. Peter Kuhns.
On Unit One, Dr. Kuhns created a process for a step-by-step resocialization and reintegration of prisoners who have been in solitary confinement for years. He also oversaw the installation of video-monitored suicide cells and de-escalation training for Unit One staff accustomed to using force on mentally ill inmates. On Unit Six, and throughout CP, Dr. Kuhns retrained all of the mental health staff so they were more like counselors than prison guards. On Unit Three, Dr. Kuhns provided a number of therapeutic programs: art therapy, process group therapy, drama, creative writing, speech and debate, and more. All of Dr. Kuhn's reforms at CP gained support from then-warden Carlton Joyner, and Lassiter, who was by that point deputy director of prisons.
The advent of therapeutic programs on death row infused a sense of hope and excitement that things might change with constructive activities to break up the monotony that causes a prolonged decay in socialization and critical thinking. Over half of the death row population consumes psychotropic medications of one sort or another. Before Dr. Kuhns instituted therapeutic programs, these medications were used as tranquilizers meant to stave off the worst hallucinations and mood swings of what is known as "death row syndrome."
Through the programs, our interaction and communication with unit staff increased and improved. Dr. Kuhns, his staff, and volunteers from Duke Divinity School and the nonprofit Hidden Voices treated us as equals. It was liberating. In a period of six months, morale on death row significantly improved.
Of all the programs Dr. Kuhns implemented, the death row drama group altered the way CP staff perceived us. After a production of the play 12 Angry Men earned support from Warden Joyner, word spread throughout the prison. The second performance was standing room only. No longer were we viewed as stereotypical death row prisoners; we became actors who cooperated on a project bigger than our circumstances.
"No longer were we viewed as stereotypical death row prisoners; we became actors who cooperated on a project bigger than our circumstances."
As one of those 12 Angry Men performers, and a frequent participant in Dr. Kuhns' groups, I thought meeting and speaking with NCDPS officials was a turning point. After each performance, staff and prison officials asked how the programs improved our lives and we related how important constructive activities had been to us. At one such discussion, superintendents from Maury and Bertie Correctional Institutions, two juvenile justice officials, and visiting representatives from the Vera Institute of Justice expressed an overwhelming need for more structured rehabilitative programming in NC prisons.
In January, 2017, CP's administration turned over as it does every few years. Edward Thomas, the new warden claimed three things are essential to a safe prison: "Security. Security. Security." Though Thomas remained supportive of Dr. Kuhns' programs, a faction of staff at CP resented the programs and attention on death row. They despised the idea that any inmate should be treated as an equal, or that use of force should be a second option rather than the first. John Juehrs, a member of this particular group of staff became the unit manager of death row, mimicking the warden's security mantra and openly expressing his disdain for Dr. Kuhn's innovative programming.
After Meggan Callahan's death in April 2017, the Charlotte Observer published "Wrong Side of the Bars" a five-part series detailing staff corruption that allowed drugs and other contraband into NC prisons. It also claimed staff shortages and poor training contributed to Callahan's murder. The series went on to describe how some staff engaged in sexual liaisons with inmates, and one unit manager ordered gang hits on prisoners. The series of articles enraged a number of legislators, and Republican Rep. Bob Steinburg, head of the Justice and Public Safety Oversight Committee, launched an inquiry into these security failures.
In prison, a legislator's wrath is felt in ways the public never experiences. We are at the mercy of every official whim no matter how contrary to safety or effective corrections. Because of this, prison is a punishment factory where output is measured in suffering, and human potential is wasted.
In prison, a legislator's wrath is felt in ways the public never experiences.
The legislative inquiry, media scrutiny, and Callahan's death created enough pressure in the NCDPS to open the door for aggressive, overly punitive actions by staff. Juehrs initiated an internal investigation of Dr. Kuhn's volunteers after receiving information about "inappropriate relationships" between inmates and volunteers. Investigators also decided to scrutinize Dr. Kuhns' use of the mental health departments' budget to purchase books and supplies for the programs, connections to prisoners beyond the use of therapy, and guest speakers he brought to death row. As a part of the investigation, five death row prisoners were sent to Unit One, solitary confinement.
As one of the prisoners sent to solitary, it took me awhile to fully understand what happened. None of the prisoners under investigation were charged with violating any policy, but in a conversation with Juehrs, he said to me, "You guys are on death row. We can't have volunteers telling you they love and care about you. That's undue familiarity." The volunteers did not engage in any inappropriate contact or bring in contraband, but because of their compassion they were labeled "sympathizers" who undermined safety and security. "We don't need some doctor roaming around the prison doing anything he wants," said Juehrs "Now it's not a problem."
The investigation ended mental health programs on death row, ousted eleven volunteers, and restricted Dr. Kuhns to CP's hospital. Lt. Soucier, who conducted the investigation, received a promotion to the hospital unit manager and created such a hostile work environment for Dr. Kuhns that he ultimately left CP to work in the juvenile justice system. It did not seem to matter that Soucier was previously fired for abusing inmates in the Vermont Department of Corrections, or that he was a defendant in a 2013 lawsuit alleging similar abuses on Unit One.
In October of 2017, Pasquotank Correctional Officers Veronica Darden, Justin Smith, Wendy Shannon, and Geoff Howe were killed by four inmates attempting to escape the high-security prison in Elizabeth City. The single deadliest attack in modern North Carolina penal history prompted investigative reports and calls for the National Guard to secure the state's prisons. Some reports concluded these murders and other prison violence are primarily attributable to staffing vacancies, poor training, and surveillance, and a lack of proper protective equipment for staff. Rep. Steinburg believed the key problems are a lack of morale and respect for officers.
Despite promises of improved safety and security from Lassiter, NCDPS Secretary Eric Hooks, and Rep. Steinburg, in June 2018, two regular population prisoners at CP cut, beat, and stabbed Lt. Soucier, severely wounding him. Though Soucier survived the attack, tensions between staff and prisoners at CP reached a boiling point. Since then, Lassiter significantly stiffened penalties for any inmate that assaults staff, threatening the use of an interstate compact to send them to solitary confinement in another state.
Meanwhile, a number of former and current corrections leaders had been appointed to the North Carolina Prison Reform Advisory Board. These officials have discussed everything from mental health care to early release policies and how to better punish violent offenders. Based on their recommendations, millions of dollars will likely be invested in recruitment, training, and equipment to make North Carolina prisons more secure. But exclusively focusing on these elements will not change the culture of violence.
"Many in the public believe these murders are why the justice system should show no mercy. Not showing mercy is how we arrived at this point."
Of the nearly 37,000 incarcerated citizens in North Carolina, most will get out, bringing their prison experiences back into the community. The prisoners responsible for the murders of officers Callahan, Howe, Smith, Darden, and Shannon will not. They lacked something the NCDPS push for safety and security does not provide: a positive connection to outside communities reinforced by education and accountability.
Many in the public believe these murders are why the justice system should show no mercy. Not showing mercy is how we arrived at this point. If legislators, NCDPS administrators, and prison officials continue to disregard what prisoners think, remove meaningful incentives, undermine rehabilitative efforts with punitive reprisals, and fail to provide models of good behavior, the penal system will cease to exist. In its place will be a collection of savage human warehouses, where public safety is a hollow ideal and everyone is in danger.