Uniece Fennell’s twin brother died in a shooting while she was being held in the Durham County jail on murder charges. She told her attorney a detention officer called her a murderer. She made numerous threats to kill herself, including one reported by another inmate early in the morning of March 23.
But Fennell, 17, was not taken seriously until she was found hanging alone in her cell nearly two hours later, with a bed sheet around her neck. Her death has been ruled a suicide.
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She is one of three 17-year-olds who have killed themselves behind bars in North Carolina’s county jails during the past decade. They account for nearly half of the seven teenagers who have died in custody statewide during that period.
Fennell was on a twice-an-hour watch, which is the minimum the state requires for all inmates, but an investigation by the state Department of Health and Human Services’ Construction Section found detention officers hadn’t been keeping up with those checks.
The investigator also said she should have been checked four times an hour shortly before she died because a detention officer had received the inmate’s tip that Fennell had threatened to harm herself.
Col. Anthony Prignano, Durham’s new jail director, said he has disciplined those who failed to make the proper checks. He said he has instituted new policies to make sure checks are done in a timely fashion, and to require detention officers to report any information indicating that inmates may harm themselves to supervisors and mental health counselors.
But Fennell’s death and the two others raise questions about whether just following current regulations is enough. State lawmakers this year changed the law so that all misdemeanors and most felonies involving those 17 and younger would be handled in juvenile court, which would mean they would be held in juvenile facilities that have more counseling and educational opportunities.
North Carolina was the last state in the nation to decide to end the practice of treating 16- and 17-year-olds as adults for all crimes. Those charged with violent felonies will continue to be treated as adults and housed in county jails while awaiting trial.
Fennell was charged with murder after a drive-by shooting, so she still would have been in an adult jail. During the night, teens are segregated from adults, but during the day in most jails, including Durham, they mix with the adult population.
Wanted: better supervision
Former state Rep. Alice Bordsen, an Alamance County Democrat who pushed for moving 16- and 17-year-olds out of the jails, said they need increased supervision because their decision-making skills often aren’t fully developed.
“There should be a much more enhanced watchfulness,” she said.
Prignano said he doesn’t see the need for more checks for these teens, but he supports more training for officers to better read how the teens are behaving.
“I won’t say more supervision but a more skilled level of supervision,” he said. “How to react and respond to certain things they say, certain things that they do.”
The three deaths of 17-year-olds show supervision issues.
Omar Mora Vargas of Smithfield hanged himself in the Vance County jail on Aug. 6, 2010. Vargas was from Mexico and worked as a waiter. He had been arrested on drug and immigration charges nine days earlier.
The jail’s death report to DHHS showed he had gone unobserved for more than two hours before he was found hanging. That’s well beyond the state requirement to check on all inmates at least twice an hour. At the time, DHHS wasn’t regularly investigating deaths.
On Aug. 29, 2007, William Andrew Jordan hanged himself in the Moore County jail. He hadn’t been placed on suicide watch and was being held in a single cell normally used for adult inmates with disabilities. The jail was using a juvenile cell block to house an overflow of adult inmates.
The cell had a narrow window for a detention officer to view inmates, and a shower with metal bars that an inmate with disabilities would use for access. Jordan hanged himself using the shower bars.
The county paid Jordan’s estate $31,750 to settle a lawsuit his family filed. Moore County Sheriff Neil Godfrey said there was no admission of responsibility. He was chief deputy in the sheriff’s department at the time of Jordan’s death.
State regulators have started regularly investigating jail deaths, but haven’t used all the tools at their disposal. Our previous stories examine why.