N.C. Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks met a chilly reception Jan. 25 while briefing legislators on the results of a top-to-bottom prisons review.

Hooks, who took office at the Department of Public Safety one year ago, faced public inquisition following two prison tragedies within his first few months of service. Altercations and jailbreak attempts at Bertie and Pasquotank Correctional Institutions left five prison employees killed. Several other employees and inmates were injured.

On Thursday, Hooks spoke before the Justice and Public Safety Oversight Committee, where legislators peppered him with questions about employee morale, hiring practices, and lack of preparedness in the face of attack.

“Can you recognize why, in your ranks, there seems to be a lot of dissension, and there is no trust anymore in management — both in Raleigh and in many of these institutions?” Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Pasquotank, asked Hooks.

The catastrophes were a result of problems built up over years, Hooks said.

“There are no words to adequately express the grief experienced by the families, friends and co-workers of these fallen heroes. Beyond our grief, we have seen the passion and professionalism our people have, which further fuels our resolve to bring about substantive change to make our prisons safer.”

Last year, Hooks ordered a departmental review, pulling in the National Institute for Corrections and Duke University researchers to offer recommendations for better hiring, training, staffing, and safety practices.

Understaffing and poor training are particularly alarming, Hooks said.

Last spring, more than 700 officers on post had not attended basic training. Inmates with violent criminal records were allowed to work in Pasquotank’s sewing plant — with easy access to scissors and other sharp objects.

Bertie, Pasquotank, and countless other prisons are understaffed. DPS hires an average of 147 people each a month, but loses roughly 150 staffers at the same time, said Pam Cashwell, chief deputy secretary of professional standards policy and planning.

It’s hard to get employees to stick around for as little as $32,000 a year, Hooks said, but the agency is working hard to make changes.

DPS drastically increased the number of corrections officers who attended basic training last year. All new officers attend camp before starting work. The 120 active officers who are still untrained will be sent to camp by March. The agency also ordered stab resistant undershirts for prison staffers, and added “situational awareness training” to its curriculum.

Camera and technology would help officers maintain safety and order, and better pay could help retain employees, Hooks said.

“Prisons are dangerous places and the problems within them did not happen overnight. It will take a concerted effort by our department and this body to make our prisons safer,” Hooks told legislators.