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Recent death at understaffed N.C. jail uncovers more safety violations, report says

Despite efforts to improve recruitment and retention, the vacancy rate in jail positions continues to grow

Mecklenburg County Jail

Two officers at the Mecklenburg County Jail in Charlotte, North Carolina, look into a cell.

Todd Sumlin/Charlotte Observer

By Michael Gordon
The Charlotte Observer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In the hour leading up to Francine Laney’s death last month, Mecklenburg County jailers failed to adequately observe her, a vital safety requirement that the facility has repeatedly violated throughout the past year, a new state report shows.

On March 2, Laney, 31, became the fourth Mecklenburg inmate to die in the uptown detention center since May. In three of those fatalities, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services later found that Sheriff Garry McFadden’s jail officers failed to comply with the state mandate of viewing each inmate at least twice an hour throughout the day.

The jail was cited for frequently violating the same rule during a December jail inspection by NCDHHS in which the facility, due to an uptick in violence, was also deemed unsafe.

In fact, Laney died only days before a state deadline for the Sheriff’s Office to submit corrections for the December infractions, including its failure to monitor its inmates adequately.

In a statement to the Observer on Tuesday, the Sheriff’s Office declined to say whether its plan to ensure hourly inmate checks had been put in place at the time of Laney’s death.

The office did say it has already begun work on a separate plan of correction for the violations found in March, which will be submitted to the state by April 27. It declined further comment, citing the ongoing probe into Laney’s death by the State Bureau of Investigation.

Death in jail medical pod

Laney, who was housed in a jail medical pod at the time, was found to be in medical distress at 6:55 p.m. on March 2, according to a March 16 report by NCDHHS Chief Jail Inspector Chris Wood that was first reported by WCNC. She died 10 minutes later.

That evening, jail staffers from the two checkpoints responsible for observing her throughout the day visited her only once during the 6 p.m. hour, Wood’s report found.

Under state regulations, the twice-an-hour viewings of each inmate must be no more than 40 minutes apart. Wood’s report does not specify how much time elapsed between the observations of Laney.

Jailers appear to have properly observed her between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. But they made just one visit over multiple hours during the night of March 1 and through the early morning of March 2, the report shows.

Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, describes the failure to monitor Laney as a major safety violation. That they occurred in a jail medical unit makes the infractions even more disturbing, she says.

“Whether it’s nursing staff or correctional staff, the infirmary is the one unit where you want adequate staffing. It’s not the place to cut corners,” Kendrick said during a phone interview with the Observer on Monday. “You need people doing rounds in the infirmary, in the same way you have people doing rounds in a hospital.”

Jailers also repeatedly violated the hourly inmate-monitoring standard leading up to the May 14, 2021, death of inmate Karon Golightly and the May 22 suicide of John Devin Haley, who was found hanging in his cell, the Observer has previously reported.

A state investigation into the June 22 jail death of Emerson Healy found no violations of state safety regulations, according to an NCDHHS investigative report of the incident obtained by the Observer.

Asked for a response to the chronic nature of the Mecklenburg violations over the past year, Kelly Connor, communications manager for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, referred the Observer to the state law spelling out the agency’s role in bringing jails into compliance, including the authority to close unsafe facilities.

Kendrick said the frequent occurrences of the safety violations in the Mecklenburg jail not only raises questions about the efforts by the Sheriff’s Office to comply with state regulations but also NCDHHS’s role in enforcing the rules.

“You get to a certain point where it comes down to whether the state is going to elevate this, or are they going to keep documenting these problems and wagging their fingers at the county,” Kendrick said. “It starts to get a Groundhog Day feel to it.”

Jail safety a campaign issue

McFadden, who is seeking re-election in the Democratic primary next month, continues to maintain that the jail is safe and that many of the problems cited by the state have resulted from a pandemic-driven exodus of jail employees.

The sheriff is facing two former longtime Mecklenburg deputies — Marquis Robinson and Aujiena “Gina” Hicks — who have made jail safety an issue in the campaign.

In a December letter to McFadden, Wood, the jail inspector, said the sheriff did not have enough personnel working in the uptown detention center to run it safely for inmates or his staff. Wood recommended the jail reduce its inmate population to under 1,000 until employment levels improved. The county has increased jailer and deputy pay and working conditions and has hired private security officers to temporarily fill some of the gaps.

Despite the efforts to improve recruitment and retention, the vacancy rate in jail positions continues to grow. As of Tuesday, 188 of the jail’s estimated 470 jobs, about 40%, were empty, the Sheriff’s Office says.

Meanwhile, the federal courts have announced an unusual plan — first reported by The Observer — to move many of the federal detainees housed in the Mecklenburg jail to a detention facility in south Georgia, some 5 1/2 hours from Charlotte.

The move could help the jail get closer to the state’s recommended inmate population. But it could cost Mecklenburg County millions of dollars that it now receives each year for housing federal inmates in its jail.

As of Tuesday morning, the jail held just under 1,200 adult inmates, 259 of them federal.

©2022 The Charlotte Observer.