The News & Observer’s series on problems with North Carolina’s county jails has offered disturbing lessons: Too many of those jails are in effect mental health facilities, only they aren’t equipped in terms of personnel or training to be so; reporting on what happens in jails, when prisoners have problems or are sick or get in trouble, is scant at best, which is not acceptable for families or for the record; deaths of prisoners in county jails are more frequent than logic and medical care and adequate supervision should allow.
This series was enlightening and disturbing, and state lawmakers ought to proceed with urgency in an overview — and action — to ensure the safety of prisoners and adequate staffing for those who supervise them. A county jail handles all sorts of people charged with crimes, a tremendous number of them mentally ill but others facing charges that are minor — perhaps they can’t make bail — and major crimes of violence.
But the series also found that county sheriffs don’t always report pertinent information about injuries and deaths in jails, despite clear requirements that they do so. And when The N&O asked sheriffs across the state to identify inmates whose deaths during the past 11 years had resulted in settlements or court awards, roughly a third of sheriffs didn’t respond to the request.
That’s not surprising. Sheriffs are independently elected and many of them, particularly in rural counties, are the most powerful politicians in their regions. Some, unfortunately, feel they answer to no one, except on occasion to county commissioners who provide their funding.
But here is an interesting and distressing aspect of some settlements: In a couple of instances, Superior Court judges agreed that the public was not entitled to know if public money was paid to inmates’ families in settlements.
This is outrageous, even though there’s a provision in the law that allows it in exceptional circumstances and even then, judges are supposed to explain the reasons for the secrecy and to include in their orders facts in the case that could be reviewed by other judges to determine whether such an order was proper.
Here’s why openness is important: A large settlement with public money obviously might indicate an error on the part of law enforcement officials supervising a jail, or at least a suspicion of an error. It is vitally important that the public know the particulars of the case for purposes of knowing how their elected and appointed employees are performing their jobs; and to determine whether one jail might have a pattern of problems.
It could be said, in fact, that such openness helps in a way to ensure prisoners’ safety, when jailers and other law enforcement officials know they will be held to account.
The answers to the disturbing problems covered by The N&O series are many and complex, though improving mental health services is obviously a priority. But first up, and simple to address, is to open all records of settlements with inmates’ families, with no exceptions. Anything less is not good enough.