Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison is disputing a state investigation’s findings that an 18-year-old inmate who hanged himself in the county detention center nearly six months ago lacked proper supervision.
In a four-page letter to state officials, Harrison said Jose Humberto Lara-Pineda was being booked and was not in a part of the jail subject to the state’s supervision regulations. Even if the regulations did apply, Harrison said Lara-Pineda showed no signs he was suicidal, which would have triggered a special watch.
Lara-Pineda was arrested in the early morning of March 21 and charged with first-degree murder in the strangulation death of Fredys Odilo Cid Ramos, 28, in Raleigh. Lara-Pineda was found hanging that afternoon in a corner cell in the detention center’s booking area. He died three days later at WakeMed.
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He is among six inmates in North Carolina jails this year who state investigators say did not get proper supervision before they died. Last month, The News & Observer reported as part of its “Jailed to Death” series that state officials have cited county jails for supervision lapses in 51 inmate deaths over the past five years.
Lara-Pineda had been at WakeMed the night before he entered the jail and was checked for “side pain and anxiety.” The hospital’s discharge paperwork said he showed no homicidal or suicidal thoughts, Harrison’s letter said.
A jail nurse performed a medical screening and also reported that Lara-Pineda denied any “medical or mental health problems, history of suicidal ideations, or current suicidal or homicidal ideations.” She said his behavior showed no risk.
She affirmed Lara-Pineda needed to be referred for a psychiatric observation, Harrison’s letter said. That was based on the murder charge he faced and the way he reacted when asked about the charge. He was soft spoken with his head down and showed little emotion, the nurse reported.
Roger McCoy, an investigator for the state Department of Health and Human Services’ Construction Section, said the nurse placed Lara-Pineda on a psychiatric “special watch,” and he should have been checked at least four times an hour under state regulations. McCoy reported those rounds didn’t start until Lara-Pineda had spent 87 minutes in the holding cell. McCoy also said Lara-Pineda was checked three times in the hour before his death, and there were no “documented supervision” rounds in the hour he was found hanging.
But Harrison said in the letter that state officials had agreed nearly two years ago that the jail supervision rules did not apply to the holding area of the detention center. He said the standard there is that inmates should be under “constant observation.”
He said Lara-Pineda was “under observation throughout” his time in the holding area cell, “either directly or by him being seen standing in the doorway.” He also said McCoy had incorrectly reported how long the nurse took to screen Lara-Pineda. Detention officers put him in the cell 31 minutes later than McCoy reported, so there wasn’t an 87-minute lapse.
The News & Observer viewed the booking area during a tour of the center in August. The corner cell where Lara-Pineda hanged himself has a large window for detention officers at a central desk to see into, but it does not provide a full view. There is a security camera on the ceiling near the desk that affords a better view, but it’s unclear why no one intervened as Lara-Pineda tied one end of a string from his jumpsuit around the nozzle of a waist-high water fountain and the other around his neck, so he could then asphyxiate himself by sitting down.
Harrison fired two detention officers after Lara-Pineda was found hanging, but he later said their “unbecoming” conduct had nothing to do with the inmate’s supervision. He has not specified what the officers did wrong. At the time of their dismissals, he said an internal policy required detention officers to check on inmates four times an hour in the booking area if they were awaiting a psychiatric evaluation.
In the letter, Harrison said his jail staff has since moved all male inmates who are on psychiatric or suicide watch to a special housing unit in the jail that has constant monitoring from three detention officers. A nurse is also assigned to the unit.
“We regret that this incident occurred, however we were operating under the direction and advice of the (state) jail inspectors,” Harrison said.
State officials couldn’t be reached about Harrison’s response. While the DHHS’ Construction Section cites jails for supervision problems, it has little authority to compel changes.
As of early August, county jails had notified the state of 24 inmate deaths this year. In six other deaths, including one in a Mecklenburg County jail in June, DHHS found no deficiencies after investigating.