When a person is booked into a county jail in North Carolina, he or she does not expect fine meals or gentle treatment by deputies. But what that individual and his or her family have a right to expect is that the individual will at least be safe.
In too many instances, that bare minimum is not being met. Fifty-one county jail inmates in the past five years have died in those jails after being left unsupervised for longer than state regulations allow. In some cases, there have been financial settlements with families; in others, investigations. But a report by The News & Observer’s Dan Kane and David Raynor demands urgent and emphatic action from the state Department of Public Safety, the governor and county boards of commissioners. The state Sheriffs Association also should take a significant role.
Because this must stop.
Some people can be brought to jail and left alone. They may be habitual offenders used to the routine, or people with lawyers they know are going to get them out, or perhaps people who have been wrongfully accused and are confident they’ll soon be exiting the custody of the county.
But it’s well known that jails often handle people with drug addictions or mental illness whose behavior is erratic. They also include in their inmate population people who have a history of doing harm to themselves, suffer from depression or are under intense drug therapy for chronic illnesses such as diabetes. A host of serious medical conditions are found in jails, but, because of the condition of inmates in terms of their ability to communicate, often go undetected.
Consider the case of Emily Jean Call, arrested in April of 2012 for missing a court date. She told officers she was high on drugs and wanted to kill herself, and in fact had cut her wrist just two weeks before her arrest.
She told medical staff that she was suffering and feared a nervous breakdown. State regulations showed the 32-year-old mother of two should have been checked on four times an hour. But Call went unwatched for more than an hour, got into a bathroom and used a sheet slung over a water pipe to hang herself.
There are too many other horrific stories. A diabetic who died because he wasn’t checked for medical problems. A Durham inmate who hanged himself after being left alone for nearly six hours.
Some 38 jails, running the gamut from urban to rural, had deaths of unsupervised inmates.
The series clearly showed a rate of suicide as a percentage of jail deaths that was far too high; it showed inadequate medical care; it showed inconsistent follow-up in terms of investigations of jail deaths; it showed families in anguish for months or years after the deaths of loved ones in jails because they couldn’t get answers.
Clearly, staffing is a problem. Jailers and deputies have long been underpaid, and county budgets have been stretched to the point where jails are woefully understaffed. To meet the supervisory needs is expensive. More expensive is providing psychiatric care that’s increasingly a necessity in county jails that house people who would be more appropriately cared for in a mental health facility – but counties have too few of those as well.
Gov. Roy Cooper, who was familiar with the criminal justice system and its problems as few have been owing to his tenure as attorney general, clearly has to lead the way to address this life-and-death issue. Lawmakers should also work with the governor to find solutions, which in part are going to mean more funding for county jails, even if that funding must come from the state.
This has been a chronic problem. But the need for a solution is acute.