Sen. Phil Berger, the Republican who leads the upper chamber of the General Assembly as the state’s most powerful lawmaker, can get things done. And he says he will when it comes to reforms to reduce, or one hopes eliminate, deaths in the state’s county jails. At least, the state must clearly and forcefully address those deaths that could have been prevented.
Berger wants a legislative oversight committee to investigate how the state might make county jails safer.
And while county sheriffs, through leaders of their group, say they’re open to help, there clearly is going to be some tension as the state looks into how those jails supervise prisoners, particularly those with mental health problems or health issues. Sheriffs, after all, are independently elected and tend to be protective of their authority over jails. In many cases, sheriffs may be the most politically powerful individuals in their counties, particularly smaller counties.
Wake County’s Donnie Harrison is due some credit on this issue, because he has been very frank about the need to help inmates with mental illnesses. Wake has better mental health facilities than most counties, but too many people with those types of problems wind up spending too much time in jail.
But more oversight of these county jails, and perhaps more oversight by personnel inside the jails, is clearly needed. A News & Observer series, “Jailed to Death,” identified 51 inmates in county jails around the state who died over the past five years after being inadequately monitored. That’s not acceptable, period.
Berger’s on board for a look at this, and that’s good. But county officials across the state ought to sound their own alarms. Consider that the series found that one in three of inmate deaths were related to supervision problems, including some inmates who died from suicide or health problems who had not been checked on for too long a period of time.
And there was another problem: Some jails weren’t reporting some deaths to the state agency that oversees supervision because the inmates had died in the hospital after being injured or getting sick in the jail. Obviously, those deaths have to be reported as connected to the jail.
There’s a universal problem likely not even confined to local jails in North Carolina, and that is that an ever-increasing number of inmates have mental illness, short- or long-term.
Reform needs to start with more training for jail personnel, in how to deal with individuals who are mentally ill and in monitoring inmates who may develop problems. Absent that training, there is a risk that jail guards or deputies doing that duty won’t know how to respond to a mentally-ill inmate in crisis, or may assume that a mental health episode is just an inmate causing problems intentionally. Jailers or deputies have to know the difference. And yes, when there is a problem in a jail, there needs to be more diligent reporting of cases in which guards may be at fault. There seems to be very little of that now.
And there must be investigation, more detailed, of inmate deaths. The N&O series demonstrated the shortcomings in the system, and Berger can lead the way in addressing problems and solving them, something that will be no less than life-saving for some inmates in North Carolina’s jails.