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State review shows Mecklenburg jail continues to miss many safety checks

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Lisa Worf
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WFAE
Mecklenburg's main jail uptown continues to struggle making safety checks on inmates.

Safety checks play a big role in jails. They can help ensure timely medical care, deter fights, and help staff maintain a sense of control. They can even prevent deaths.

Mecklenburg County continues to miss a substantial amount of these checks, according to a state inspection in late June that was just released. That’s after the main jail was cited for this in a December inspection. That inspection found there was “an imminent threat” to safety at the jail due to short staffing and a rise in violence.

Missing safety checks can have dire consequences. Take the case of a 17-year-old at the Mecklenburg Juvenile Detention Center in 2020.

Attorney Micheal Littlejohn said if officers had properly checked on him, his client’s son would still be alive.

“I believe a mother battling with breast cancer will be able to still talk to her son every day as she did before,” Littlejohn said.

The teenager was on a suicide alert, which, according to state policy, means an officer must check on him at least every 10 minutes by looking into his cell and visually observing him.

“There were significant periods of time where he was not observed,” Littlejohn said.

He obtained jail surveillance video from the State Bureau of Investigation. He says that video shows an officer walked past the cell three times between 1:19 and 1:43 p.m., but only once looked inside the jail cell window. Littlejohn alleges in the lawsuit that was only a brief glance, and he doesn’t believe the officer could see the teenager, named D.W. in the lawsuit. He had attached a bedsheet to a metal grate in the ceiling.

“At 1:56, the same jailor found D.W.’s lifeless body hanging in a cell,” said Littlejohn.

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Lisa Worf
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Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office
A pod at the Mecklenburg County's Juvenile Detention Center

The sheriff’s office said it can’t comment on any pending litigation.

These checks are one of the ways the state judges whether a jail is safe.

After deaths, the state reviews whether officers properly performed safety checks. In the last 15 months, eight inmates have died at Mecklenburg’s main jail. That’s the highest number of deaths at the jail over that time frame in the last 10 years, according to jail records.

The state has conducted reviews of seven of the deaths through this past June and in five of them found many missed safety checks. Most of those deaths were in the months after a December inspection could not find documentation for a significant number of safety checks.

Disability Rights North Carolina tracks jail inspections throughout the state since so many inmates are mentally ill. The state conducts these general inspections twice a year.

“Of the couple of hundred that I've reviewed, that inspection, in itself, had a very high number of missed rounds compared to what we usually see, even for places that routinely fail these kinds of checks,” said Luke Woollard, a staff attorney at Disability Rights NC.

The state requires jail staff to observe most inmates twice an hour on an irregular basis with no longer than 40 minutes between checks. If that person is an adult and has a medical problem that needs special attention or is deemed a suicide risk, it’s four times an hour.

The December inspection found no documentation for many rounds in time blocks checked with the exception of one day over an 18-day span in November and early December. Officers regularly missed a quarter of checks at selected checkpoints. One day, nearly two-thirds. There were also several times when no checks were recorded for more than two hours.

“That's an extreme number of missing rounds,” said Michele Deitch, who leads the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas and has served as a court-appointed prison monitor in that state.

“When you've got understaffing, that is the result. There just simply are not enough staff to do the supervision rounds,” said Deitch.

She says when records show rounds are being completed, in her experience, “a lot of times those logs are falsified” or rounds aren’t performed thoroughly.

The state jail inspector told the sheriff’s office in December that Mecklenburg’s main jail needed to start transferring inmates to get the population down to a manageable number. The jail ended up transferring more than 100 federal inmates, while a group including the chief district court judge, district attorney and public defender evaluated inmates the jail could safely release.

A few months later in March, the major in charge of the jail told county commissioners that staffing shortages got in the way of conducting consistent safety checks.

In an interview in April, Mecklenburg Sheriff Garry McFadden said missing rounds isn’t unique to his administration.

“These deficiencies have always been happening under every administration, not just [this] administration because of short staffing,” the sheriff said.

There are jails where inspections turn up repeated problems with missed checks, but Mecklenburg’s main jail wasn’t one of those from 2017 to 2020. The jail was cited in 2017 for problems with safety checks, but that’s because administrators couldn’t immediately access the records the inspector needed. They sent them in later that day. A review after a death in 2019 did show three missed rounds over 48 hours. Another one after a death in 2020, showed 10% of rounds missed. The jail was cited again in 2020 because paper was covering the windows of 11 cells, making it hard for officers to see inside.

As for the main jails in Wake, Guilford and Forsyth counties, a review of general inspections in 2017 and 2018 provided by Disability Rights NC showed no problems with officers missing safety checks, at least in the spot checks the state conducted.

“In these bigger facilities, it just does not look like we were seeing many fails at all for supervision [in these inspections],” said Woollard.

However, reviews after deaths often show up problems with safety checks. WFAE analyzed state reviews of 22 deaths in those three jails over the past five years. There were missed, late, or incomplete checks in 15 of those cases.

In eight of those, problems were found in roughly 1 to 10% of rounds.

There were more significant problems in seven. In one example, an officer walked by a cell with a garbage bag over a window seven times before finding an inmate hanged himself.

Inspections in neighboring Gaston, Union, and Cabarrus counties last year didn’t reveal any problems with missed rounds.

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Lisa Worf
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Mecklenburg County
Sheriff Garry McFadden updating county commissioners in March about the jail's plan of correction.

McFadden told county commissioners in March that, unlike other inspections, the state inspector was tipped off to look at certain dates from someone on the sheriff’s staff. He also said that although officers did not make the rounds, they weren’t far from inmates.

“Although they are inside a pod, they simply said with all that’s going on, I simply didn’t touch a button to indicate that I was making a round. That would be a deficiency. So that’s what we’re going to talk about moving forward, ” Mc Fadden said.

The problems with missed safety checks at Mecklenburg County’s main jail came to light after the death of a 20-year-old inmate named Karon Golightly. He was found unresponsive in a cell in May 2021.

According to a state review, an officer checked on Golightly after noticing another inmate standing by the cell. That was at least 48 minutes since the last check. In the 24 hours leading up to his death, officers missed nearly one- fifth of safety checks.

Speaking generally in April, McFadden said it wasn’t that officers missed a lot of safety checks, many were just late.

“The deficiency is we didn't do it in the time frame that we usually do," said Mc Fadden. "Here's an example. Domino's Pizza say they will deliver any pizza in 30 minutes. Is it a deficiency of them coming in 40 minutes? Yes. Was the pizza delivered? Yes.”

But the state reviews cited missed rounds.

A state inspection in late June shows officers continue to miss a substantial amount of checks. The inspector wrote there were “missed rounds at most locations at various times” on two selected days in June. His review included three checkpoints where officers missed between 20 to 30% of checks. At one point, there were at least two hours in which officers made no checks.

So far this year five Mecklenburg inmates have died. In the past decade, only 2018 saw as many deaths. State reviews after those found the jail was making the required rounds. The state and sheriff’s office have released reviews of four of those deaths this year. In three of them, the jail was cited for missing rounds.

In April, 47-year-old William Rhinesmith was found hanging in his cell after being charged with possession of a stolen vehicle four days earlier. In the 36 hours surrounding his death, officers missed nearly one-fifth of mandated safety checks. They missed about the same amount in the hours before Francine Laney’s death in a medical unit in March, including one right before she was found in distress.

Eddie Caldwell with the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association said safety checks are important, but they can’t catch everything.

“Most inmates are not at risk for any kind of problem and, so, you could go hours and not check on them. Not that you should, but nothing bad would happen,” said Caldwell. “Other inmates, if you were watching them 59 minutes out of an hour, they would do something that they shouldn't do in that one minute.”

Although the state inspection released last week showed problems continue, reviews after deaths in May and early June hinted at some improvement. Officers missed about 9% of rounds leading up to the death of Derrick Geter in May and none leading up to the death of Tommy Hucks in June.

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Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.
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