The N.C. American Civil Liberties Union has been checking with county jails to see if they are adhering to the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, which requires holding youths under 18 separate from adults.
Using the public records law in North Carolina, the ACLU asked for documents from each of the jails to show compliance with the law, according to Sarah Preston, ACLU policy director for North Carolina.
“We ought to be doing everything we can to prevent sexual assault,” Preston said.
The federal law was passed in 2003, but the rules for implementation weren’t completed by the U.S. Department of Justice until 2012. The regulations have clear requirements on how youthful offenders should be treated in jails and detention centers, Preston said.
“The big thing is they need to be separate from adults the entire time they’re in the facility unless there’s direct supervision,” Preston said.
In North Carolina, 16- and 17-year-olds are treated as adults in the criminal justice system.
Wake County has said ACLU representatives can come to review its records, Preston said.
Capt. Jimmy Stevens of the Wake County Sheriff’s Office said the Wake County Jail keeps its juveniles in separate pods from adults.
“We’ve always done that,” he said. “We’re in compliance there.”
Chatham County Sheriff Richard Webster sent a letter in February saying it had no records. However, on April 2, it sent out a press release saying that the Sheriff’s Office anticipates being in full compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act when it completes its new jail.
“The current Chatham County jail’s physical structure is small and antiquated and does not allow us to achieve full compliance,” the release from Sheriff Richard Webster said. “A new jail is under construction and over 50 percent complete. It is scheduled to open later this year. We are and have been working towards full compliance.”
The Durham County Jail houses 16- and 17-year-olds separately from adults at night, according to Paul Sherwin, public information officer for the Durham County Sheriff’s Office.
“Youth offenders are assigned their own cells but may be roomed with another person who is less than 18 years old,” Sherwin wrote in an email.
Maj. Julian Couch, who is in charge of security at the Durham County Jail, added that the Durham County Jail follows the standard allowed by state statute in North Carolina, which he said allows 16- and 17-year-olds to be housed in local adult facilities.
The only requirement according to state mandate is that the youthful offenders sleep separate and apart from adult inmates, he said.
“Youthful inmates (16 and 17 year olds) do co-mingle with adult inmates when not ‘locked back,’ ” Couch said in an email.
On average, the Durham County Jail houses about 34 youths in the jail, Sherwin said.
Preston, however, said the federal law will take precedence over the state statute and that is one of the reasons the ACLU sent letters to the sheriffs, to notify them they should comply with the federal PREA regulations that require juveniles to be kept separately all the time.
Orange County has not responded to the public records request, according to Preston, and Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass did not respond to requests for information.
The ACLU has taken on the project to determine whether county sheriffs and their jails are in compliance with PREA because no one else checks on them, Preston said.
“Nobody really has control over the sheriffs except whoever elects them,” she said. “That’s part of why we’re investigating them.”
Of the county jails that have responded, most of them have sent back copies of their housing policies, which includes how they assess people when they arrive at the jail and how the jail meets the requirements in housing them, she said.