More inmates died in North Carolina’s jails in 2018 than any other year since the state began tracking deaths in 1997.
Forty-four inmates died behind bars or at a medical facility after becoming ill in the jail last year. That’s four more than the previous high in 2015. But over the past five years, jail deaths have trended upward despite more public awareness.
“With all the attention that’s being paid on it, these numbers should be going down,” said Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat and former chief district court judge.
Some of the increase can be attributed to better reporting of jail deaths. Last year, state lawmakers tackled a reporting loophole that allowed jails not to report in-custody deaths when a sick inmate had made it to a hospital before dying. Those deaths now have to be reported.
Jails are still are not required to inform the state if the inmate had been released from custody.
Records show more of those deaths are being reported voluntarily, though, including two last year involving inmates sent to Central Prison in Raleigh for care.
But the deaths also reflect that jails continue to struggle with two high-risk populations that sheriffs and public policy experts say have been growing over the years: those with mental illness and/or drug addictions.
Autopsies and preliminary reports show at least 12 of the inmates killed themselves, including two who jumped to their deaths. Eight were drug-related, those reports show, including two who died of overdoses after being in jail for months.
Though the deaths have increased, the percentage of cases in which inmates were not properly supervised may be going down. The state Department of Health and Human Services, which investigates jails for supervision compliance, found no deficiencies in at least 23 of the deaths.
Those include all five deaths in Mecklenburg County jails, which led the state with the most deaths among the state’s 100 counties. That’s the most the county has had since 2007.
Of the remaining 21 deaths, DHHS investigators found nine inmates who hadn’t been properly supervised, including one in Wake and one in Durham. The other cases are still under investigation or aren’t being investigated because the circumstances did not show a need for an investigation.
Investigators found serious supervision problems in some of the deaths. In Swain County an inmate who died from a drug overdose had been checked only twice in five hours. In Richmond County an inmate died of undetermined causes after being in an overcrowded jail in an area where a video camera wasn’t working. There were no checks documented for three hour-long shifts, and only one check for each of 15 other shifts. In Watauga County an inmate hanged himself after being left alone in a section of the jail that had been evacuated following a sewage backup.
A News & Observer series in 2017 found a systemic problem with jail supervision, as DHHS reports showed supervision failures in at least one in three of all jail deaths. The “Jailed to Death “series also exposed the reporting loophole that allowed jails to not report deaths from circumstances that began in the jail, but ended with death in a hospital.
Eddie Caldwell, the executive director for the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, said the rising death toll does not necessarily mean there’s a serious problem with the way jails manage inmates. The deaths are a tiny percentage of the total inmate population in county jails. There are 113 jails across the state that can hold roughly a total of 24,000 inmates at a time.
“I think more analysis of those raw numbers is required,” he said.
He said he wouldn’t call for that analysis, but the association would cooperate if lawmakers chose to look further into jail deaths.
The average daily jail population statewide has increased nearly 14 percent over the past four years, from 18,456 in 2015 to 20,995 last year, DHHS records show.
How North Carolina’s jail deaths compare with the rest of the country is unknown because the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics has not done an annual report in more than two years. Tannyr Watkins, a bureau spokeswoman, had said last year that a report would be out by the end of 2018 for deaths in 2015 and 2016, but said this week it still hasn’t been released and is under review.
Susan Pollitt, a supervising attorney with Disability Rights North Carolina, said the rising number of jail deaths is disheartening, and shows the need for better supervision, screening for health issues and suicide prevention in the jails. She said the DHHS unit responsible for inmate supervision and safety also needs more funding. Disability Rights has long called for more community-based treatment that could keep some of those with mental illness or drug addiction from ending up in jail.
“We need to raise the standard of care,” she said.
She said lawmakers should also focus on jails that are repeat offenders when supervision standards aren’t met and consider punitive measures in egregious cases. State law does allow for a misdemeanor charge in cases of extreme negligence, but DHHS officials say they are unaware of it being used, and aren’t in a position to file such a charge.
DHHS officials did not comment on the rise in jail deaths.
The state appears close to adopting new rules that will tighten inmate supervision and require jails to have a suicide prevention program. Gov. Roy Cooper has signed off on the new rules, which go to the state Rules Review Commission in the coming weeks.