Mecklenburg 6 State of Fear: 35 years later corrections officers are haunted by death row breakout

Local News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — We’re taking you back 35 years ago, to the great escape and the state of fear when the Mecklenburg Six were on the run after escaping from death row.  It would take nearly three weeks to capture all six of the escapees.  The fallout here in Virginia from the breakout would last a lot longer.   

‘They had nothing but time to plan’

As officers were mounting a massive manhunt across the region, inside the prison, the investigation into how the ‘Mecklenburg Six’ had escaped was just getting underway.

The officers who had been taken hostage and tied up during the takeover found themselves in the hot seat, under heavy scrutiny for their actions.  

“They had nothing but time to plan, that’s all they had.  24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year”

“I felt very unappreciated because I didn’t give up my life, I was being blamed. They didn’t care if we lived or died,” former corrections officer Coraleen Epps recalled. “They put me on a lie detector test and tried to say I was part of the escape and I had failed the polygraph and let me go.”

“How’d that make you feel?” 8News anchor Morgan Dean asked.

“Worthless,” Epps replied.

Five officers lost their jobs. Coraleen Epps was among them, although she says she wouldn’t have come back to work at the prison even if she could have; she doesn’t regret her actions that day.  

“I couldn’t overpower them, to get them out of the control room, I did what I was supposed to do,” Epps said. “My survivor instincts kicked in when they told me what to do. That’s what I did.  

“I’m very blessed. As a result, I now have five children and six grandchildren. I’m blessed and here to see them.” — Coraleen Epps

Shift Commander Larry Hawkins and Officer Prince Thomas also went through days of questioning, but both kept their jobs and both ultimately retired from the State Department of Corrections.

Even though it’s been 35 years, that night still haunts them both.  

 “My wife told me, I would wake up in my sleep, grabbing my neck, talking in my sleep,” Thomas said. “Even today, I don’t sleep right. I have not slept the whole night since 1984. I go to bed at 11 o’clock. I wake up two or three times.”

They say the investigation in the days, weeks and months after the escape led to immediate security changes to try and prevent another breakout.

“Mecklenburg was supposed to be escape-proof,” Don Baylor said. “They corrected things after that.”

Among the changes: Keeping death row inmates confined to their cells most of the day, limiting how many guards had access to keys and blocking off stairwells where inmates were able to hide during the escape.  

They also installed cameras and started introducing new officers to the entire staff.    

“Generally, it takes something to happen before we see our shortcomings,” added Baylor, who serves as the head of the National Coalition of Public Safety Officers, a union representing prison officers.

Baylor has been vocal about his concerns recently in regards to the state’s correctional centers. 8News investigative reporter Kerri O’Brien has been highlighting some of those issues in reports over the past two years.

Baylor says he hopes nothing like the Mecklenburg Six breakout will ever happen again. He says the state can never let down its guard, something that concerns him with facilities being short staffed.

“Staff shortages are recipes for unfortunate events,” says Baylor.    

All six of the death row escapees were executed.  Lem Tuggle was the final member of the ‘Mecklenburg Six’ to be put to death; his execution was in 1996.   

The Mecklenburg Correctional Center closed in 2012. It has since been demolished and the property has been given to the town of Boydton.   

CLICK HERE for more coverage of the ‘Mecklenburg Six’ jailbreak. 

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