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N.C. jail ‘a safe place’: Sheriff defends his operation after critical state report

Among other changes, Sheriff Garry McFadden says his office has raised starting officer pay to “top dollar” to attract more applicants


Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden

N.C. Sheriff’s Association

By Michael Gordon
The Charlotte Observer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A day after a state report found major violations at the staff-depleted Mecklenburg County jail, Sheriff Garry McFadden on Friday defended his staff’s operation of the facility and insisted his jail is safe.

In a 30-minute press conference in which McFadden surprised reporters by refusing to take questions, the sheriff said violence is down inside the detention facility, cited that no inmate has died despite 1,200 jail cases of COVID-19 since 2020, and said the jail will make the corrections ordered by the Department of Health and Human Services well within the mandated 60-day window.

[More: N.C. jail given 60 days to fix safety after new report links violence to staff shortages]

McFadden said that contrary to the headlines and findings of state inspectors, his jail is not violent — at least in part because of a newly created 16-officer unit responsible for ferreting out weapons and contraband.

“Mecklenburg County jail is a safe place,” he said.

A state report, which the Sheriff’s Office received Wednesday, paints a different picture. It detailed how chronic vacancies that now extend to a third of the jail’s 470 total jobs had left the staff unable to adequately patrol and safely manage North Carolina’s largest local detention facility. It also tied an uptick in violence inside the facility during the fall to a paucity of working officers.

In one example, chief jail inspector Chris Wood noted that an “inmate riot” on Sept. 4 had occurred when the jail’s day shift had nearly two dozen vacancies out of 80 slots while the night shift was close to 30 workers short.

In a letter to McFadden in December, Wood said the jail had too many inmates for its jail to safely control, posing an imminent threat to staff and prisoners. At the time, the jail had 1,407 inmates. In his letter, Wood recommended the population be cut to under 1,000. On Friday morning, the count was 1,313.

Despite Wood’s letter, McFadden said during his press conference that his office has never received any “paperwork” from the state calling for depopulating the jail. Janet Parker, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office, later told the Observer the sheriff was drawing a distinction between Wood’s written recommendation and a formal state notification to cut inmate numbers.

The sheriff also chided the media over the fairness of its coverage of current jail staffing and safety problems, which McFadden himself has frequently called “a crisis.”

He also cited his department’s “transparency” in discussing the issue. However, the sheriff, through his staff, has declined multiple interview requests by the Observer over the past six weeks. While he asked reporters to be balanced and to give his department a chance to have its say, he left the podium without taking questions.

Asked by the Observer as he was leaving the room, how he balanced his claim of transparency with his refusal to take questions, McFadden replied, “I think we have been transparent.”

The sheriff’s other comments included:

  • In an effort to improve hiring, the Sheriff’s Office has raised entry pay for detention officers and deputies to $53,530, which McFadden called “top dollar.” Hourly pay has gone from $20.11 to $25.25, according to Parker.

Meanwhile, County Manager Dena Diorio and the Board of County Commissioners has also offered to provide bonuses to new and existing workers to improve hiring and retention. A handout at the press conference said “preliminary discussions” with the county about the pay incentives are underway.

Meanwhile, the number of jail vacancies — 157 — has remained the same for several weeks. McFadden blamed negative media coverage for making hiring harder. He also said the “Great Resignation” during the pandemic has seen millions of Americans leave jobs, not just inside the jail.
Staffing issues continue to plague the Mecklenburg jail. Is a shutdown possible?

  • McFadden also said, “The Mecklenburg County jail is not closing — at all.” His statement appeared to be in response to Observer stories this week about a North Carolina law that gives the state, county commissioners and a local judge authority to close the jail if conditions “jeopardize the safe custody, safety, health, or welfare of persons confined in the facility.”

The story did not say the Mecklenburg jail was closing and acknowledged that the paper had not found a case in North Carolina where a jail for shut down for safety violations.

©2022 The Charlotte Observer.