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

The state’s findings could trigger a process in which the sheriff and county either correct the violations or risk having the jail closed

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. — A new state report says the yearlong staffing shortage at the Mecklenburg jail has made the uptown facility unsafe and gives the county 60 days to fix it.

In a Feb. 9 letter to Sheriff Garry McFadden obtained by the Observer, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services cites the jail for major safety violations — each of them tied to a pandemic-driven exodus of personnel that has left the state’s largest local detention facility too poorly staffed to ensure the safety of inmates or jail personnel.

In a previous Dec. 23 letter, DHHS Chief Jail Inspector Chris Wood warned that the staffing shortage posed “an imminent threat to the safety of the inmates and staff.”

Wood recommended that McFadden, given his staffing at the time, should cut the jail population to below 1,000 inmates. At the time, the jail held more than 1,400, meaning a cut of almost 30%. Despite more than six weeks of efforts by McFadden, judges, prosecutors and public defenders to cut the numbers, the decreases have been incremental at best.

As of Thursday morning, the jail population was 1,348 — still hundreds short of the state target. The staffing vacancies, which totaled 159 just before Christmas, has inched down to 157 as of Monday.

On Wednesday, the state gave notice that the status quo won’t do. Wood gave McFadden 30 days to inform the state on how his office would correct the violations, and 60 days to fix them entirely.

The Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to an email and phone call seeking comment from McFadden.

But in a statement released at 6 p.m., the office said it has been addressing the problem areas by reallocating personnel and creating a special tactical unit to tamp down jail violence. While the job vacancies still exist, the statement said a new overtime policy has ensured that the jail is adequately staffed without forcing officers to work onerously long shifts, as they had up until a few weeks ago.

“We are continuing to proactively address all of the issues in the detention center, and I’m really proud of the efforts being made by my staff and the collaborative approach by other key criminal justice stakeholders as we work through our staffing challenges,” McFadden said in the statement.

The state’s findings could trigger a process in which McFadden and the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners either correct the violations or risk having the jail closed.

According to state law, when NCDHHS determines that jail conditions “jeopardize the safe custody, safety, health, or welfare of persons confined in the facility” or violate several other standards, department Secretary Kody Kinsley can order corrections or close the facility altogether.

Report: Jail violated primary duty

In his 15-page report this week, Wood left no doubt that the personnel vacancies have left the jail inadequately supervised and a danger to inmates and staff alike.

His report found the jail in violation of its primary duty, namely: “No person may be confined” in a facility unless there are adequate personnel to provide “continuous supervision” and to ensure inmate safety in case of an emergency.

The report detailed dozens of violations in which Mecklenburg jailers failed to make the required twice-an-hour inspections of every inmate.

Wood also tied multiple outbreaks of violence to the lack of adequate staffing. At full capacity, the day and night shifts at the jail each operate with 80 employees:

  • On Dec. 5, when a jail staff member was assaulted, the day and night shifts both were almost two dozen detention workers short.
  • Similar shortages were in place on Nov. 2, when multiple staff members were assaulted and weapons found, according to the report.
  • On Sept. 4, when an “inmate riot with weapons found” erupted in one jail pod, the day shift had 23 vacancies, the night shift almost 30.

In all, the jail reported 454 incidents between Jan. 1 to Dec. 9 last year.

“Many of the incidents were considered serious,” Wood wrote, “including assaults on staff, assaults on staff with weapons, inmate on inmate fights, and searches that resulted in discovery of homemade weapons.”

A phone call and email to Wood on Thursday were not immediately returned. A request to DHHS to talk with Kinsley did not draw an immediate response.

McFadden is scheduled to hold a press conference Friday afternoon “to detail depopulation efforts.”

Next move on sheriff, county

According to state law, Wood’s report now puts the onus on McFadden and eventually county commissioners to address the staffing problem.

Commissioners, as the county’s presiding body, can challenge any state order. If they lose, they can appeal.
That would send the matter to Carla Archie, who, as the county’s senior resident Superior Court judge, has been actively involved in efforts to lower the jail population this year.

After holding a public hearing, Archie “may affirm, modify, or reverse the Secretary’s order,” the law says.

The Observer requested an interview with Archie on Wednesday. The judge declined, saying she could not comment on a situation that might come before her in court.

Board of commissioners Chairman George Dunlap did not respond to Observer emails and phone calls this week seeking comment. Emails to County Manager Dena Diorio and County Attorney Tyrone Ward about the jail problems and the commissioners’ role in addressing them also went unanswered.

In an email to commissioners Thursday morning obtained by the Observer, Diorio said that at this point, it’s McFadden’s job to fix the jail problems, not the county’s.

The county manager wrote she has been assured by Kinsley that this is a “corrective action, not an enforcement action.” The latter would “require the Board to take specific actions to assure minimum standards at the detention center are met.”

Up to now, Diorio wrote, “We have been working with Sheriff McFadden and his staff on strategies to solve the deficiencies ... and we will work closely with him on the corrective action plan.”

[More: N.C. sheriff: Yes, our jail is in crisis; here’s my plan]

Last week, a county spokesperson confirmed that Diorio “offered to work with the Sheriff to develop a sign-on bonus program” to improve hiring. To improve retention, commissioners also approved additional bonuses for some existing employees. It’s not clear if the Sheriff’s Office has put the bonus plans in place.

The likelihood of a jail closure remains unclear. The Observer has not found a recent instance in North Carolina where a jail was shut down for safety reasons.

If it were to happen in Mecklenburg County, the impact would be enormous on the state and federal courts. As of Thursday morning, the jail held more than 1,020 state inmates, including more than 900 accused felons awaiting trial. The facility also housed 341 federal inmates, part of contract with the federal courts that pays the county some $30 million a year.

The pandemic has siphoned away personnel from all sides of Mecklenburg criminal justice system. The district attorney’s office and the clerk of court are operating well below full capacity. The courthouse is still operating on a reduced schedule, meaning inmates awaiting trial face longer jail stays.

©2022 The Charlotte Observer.