BURGAW — Inmates of three housing units at Pender Correctional Institution started small trashcan fires and refused to return to their dorms over a period of five hours on Wednesday night, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. Despite the apparent lack of information available, the department wouldn’t refer to the matter as a “riot” or “disturbance,” and instead categorized it as an “incident” as defined by the American Correctional Association (ACA).
“It was not a riot, contrary to initial rumors,” DPS spokesperson John Bull said in a statement released Thursday morning.
Bull said seven ringleaders were identified, but when pressed to answer how many total inmates were involved in the incident, he replied, “Around 300 offenders total are housed in the three dorms in question.”
Later, he said the total number of inmates involved in the incident was undetermined. He also said he is unsure of “any direct connection to Covid-19” when asked if the incident was in any way caused by a recent spike in positive cases and an inmate’s death last week due to Covid-19.
According to Pender County’s daily Covid-19 reports, the prison identified 35 positive cases on Oct. 1, the day the prisoner died. Its latest report issued Thursday identified 93 positive cases.
Bull said the fires began Wednesday evening at around 6:30 p.m. and the incident was not contained until just before midnight. Some inmates refused to return to their dorms after the fires were extinguished and the smoke had cleared, according to Bull.
“The Prison Emergency Response Team used less-than-lethal force to prevent the incident from escalating and to encourage the offenders to return to their dorms,” Bull said.
DPS reported no injuries among prison staff, although some inmates who had refused to return to their dorms experienced minor injuries, according to Bull.
“Seven offender ringleaders were identified and transferred to a close custody facility [Wednesday] night,” Bull said. “They were immediately placed in medical quarantine and remain there.”
Bull pointed to definitions determined by the ACA and used by the state’s Division of Prisons:
- A riot occurs when a significant number of inmates control a significant portion of the facility for a significant period of time.
- A disturbance is a step down from a riot in that there are fewer inmates involved, and there is no control or minimal control of any portion of the facility by inmates.
- An incident is then a step down from a disturbance in that one or a few inmates are involved and there is no control of any portion of the facility for any period of time by an inmate.
These definitions do not clearly distinguish the number of inmates that would constitute “significant, fewer, or few,” nor did Bull clearly explain why there was “no control of the facility for any period of time by an inmate.”
It is also unclear why the DPS defined what occurred Wednesday night as “an incident” as its spokesperson said the total number of inmates involved was still undetermined.
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