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N.C. jail to reduce inmate population due to ‘signficant safety concerns around staffing shortages’

As of last month, 141 of the jail’s 470 total positions were unfilled

Mecklenburg County Jail Charlotte NC

COs keep watch in a hallway on the second floor of the Mecklenburg County Jail in Charlotte, North Carolina. Sheriff Garry McFadden acknowledged last month that he did not have the staffing to meet the state’s minimum supervision standards.

Todd Sumlin/Charlotte Observer

By Jonathan Limehouse, Michael Gordon
The Charlotte Observer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office says it’s working to reduce its jail population after a state inspection found “significant safety concerns around staffing shortages,” some driven by COVID-19 outbreaks that have sickened some 81 workers and more than a fourth of inmates.

The Dec. 21 inspection by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services found that conditions at the uptown detention center did not meet “some of the minimum standards” for confinement facilities in the state, jeopardizing “the safe custody, safety, health and welfare” of inmates and employees.

The agency called for a massive reduction in the jail’s inmate population to improve overall conditions.

The staffing shortages will continue and possibly increase because of the number of inmates housed at the jail, the preliminary report said. The jail had 1,407 inmates as of Dec. 21, according to the report.

It’s unclear how many jail jobs are vacant.

Last month, sheriff’s spokeswoman Janet Parker told the Observer that 141 of the jail’s 470 total positions were unfilled, a 30% vacancy rate.

The Observer requested an updated number from the Sheriff’s Office on Monday afternoon but did not hear back in time for this story.

To help with the shortages, NCDHHS said the jail should immediately depopulate the uptown jail to a level that can be managed by its available staff. In a Dec. 23 letter to the jail, Chief Jail Inspector Chris Wood recommended a jail population of under 1,000 inmates — meaning a nearly 30% cut or more to the current population.

In a statement that included the state’s findings, the Sheriff’s Office said it is working to address the issues raised by the inspection:

  • Inmates who have been sentenced could be transferred to N.C. Department of Public Safety facilities.
  • Working with the U.S. Marshals Service, the Mecklenburg District Attorney, chief District Court judge and the Public Defender’s Office to identify inmates who may be eligible for release.
  • Requests also have been made to the N.C. Sheriff’s Association to see if other counties may be able to house inmates from Mecklenburg.

To address staffing shortages, the Sheriff’s Office last month said it would relocate 23 juvenile detainees at its north Charlotte facility to other counties. Jail staff would then be reassigned to uptown, the Observer previously reported.

Mandatory overtime and reallocation of staff from other divisions also have been implemented, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

“We have been very transparent about the shortages facing the agency and we are exhausting all options to ensure the safety and security of MCDCC,” Sheriff Garry McFadden said in the release. “These are unprecedented times.”

The state inspection also found the jail could not safely evacuate inmates from the facility in the event of an emergency.

An increase in the number of violent incidents leading to staff and inmate injuries was another key finding, according to the report. Because of staffing shortages, the incidents took longer to control. In one case, medical attention to an injured staff member was delayed, the report said.

[More: 3 N.C. county jail officers assaulted, 1 stabbed by inmate]

“Our staff has worked through the COVID-19 pandemic since the beginning of 2020,” McFadden said in the release. “They are fatigued, coping with loss due to the virus or battling the virus themselves while still fulfilling their duties at MCSO. We must take all of these factors into account, but we will not cease in our efforts to adequately operate our detention facility.”

County officials tried to reduce the jail population at the start of the pandemic but failed to do so. Whatever reductions they made were negated by countywide arrests and the significant number of federal inmates held at the facility.

Ongoing issues at Meck jail

The findings in the preliminary NCDHSS report aren’t the first to raise safety issues at the Mecklenburg County Jail.

Government documents obtained by The Charlotte Observer in September showed that the uptown facility violated state regulations designed to ensure prisoner safety in connection with the back-to-back deaths of two inmates last spring:

  • Karon Golightly of Gastonia died on the morning of May 14. Eight months later, the cause of his death remains “undetermined,” according to the state medical examiner’s office. The State Bureau of Investigation continues to look into the case.
  • On May 22, John Devin Haley of Charlotte, 41, was found hanging below his cell window with a strip of blanket tied around his neck. Haley had a history of addiction and mental health problems when he entered the jail on April 3 and was temporarily placed on suicide watch, jail records show.

In North Carolina, jailers are required to observe each inmate “at least twice an hour on an irregular basis, with no more than 40 minutes between rounds,” according to state regulations.

That standard was repeatedly violated in the hours leading up to the deaths of Golightly and Haley, NCDHHS investigators found.

It is unclear how staffing problems may have contributed to the jail’s failure to make the required rounds to the inmates’ cells. McFadden declined several Observer requests for comment, citing the SBI probes.

Last month, McFadden acknowledged to WCNC that he did not have the staffing to meet the state’s minimum supervision standards.

The deaths of Golightly and Haley are among a series of crises that rocked the jail in 2021, including another death and a resurgent coronavirus that sickened dozens of inmates in late August.

Two weeks after Haley’s death, detention officer Kyle Harris was charged with sexually assaulting a transgender inmate. The Sheriff’s Office also fired several others, including one accused of fighting with an inmate.

In late September, a female detention officer was fired and arrested after McFadden said she had sex with an inmate.

Several jail workers also suffered injuries after being attacked by inmates.

The local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police sought an independent investigation last month, according to WCNC.

©2022 The Charlotte Observer.