Politics & Government

Suicides are back on the rise in North Carolina jails, report says

Suicide deaths are back on the rise in North Carolina’s county jails even as a majority of the state’s sheriffs stand in the way of new rules that could save lives, according to a new report by a state advocate for those with mental and physical disabilities.

In the first nine months of this year, 17 of the 35 deaths reported to state officials were suicides, Disability Rights North Carolina said in the report released Thursday. That puts North Carolina back on a path in which the percentage of deaths in jails that are suicides exceeds the current national average of about one out of every three deaths.

With three months left in the year, the number of suicides is two deaths shy of the 19 suicides in NC jails in all of 2015. That year was the highest since at least 2013, state records show.

The state has proposed new rules that would require jails to improve their screening of inmates upon intake and their supervision behind bars, but the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association and 66 of the state’s sheriffs have held up the adoption of the rules, Disability Rights said. As a result, the rules can’t take effect until next year, and could be shot down by state lawmakers before then.

“The continuing rash of deaths and related lawsuits demonstrate the urgent need for changes to protect our jailed NC residents,” Disability Rights’ report said.

Read the report.

In 2017, Disability Rights and The News & Observer published in-depth reports on jail deaths. The N&O in a five-part series found monitoring issues with a third of all jail deaths over a five-year period. Those issues ranged from detention officers not checking inmates in a timely fashion to security cameras not working.

The series also found that some deaths went unreported to the state agency responsible for jail regulations because while inmates may have become infirm in jail, they didn’t die until they had been taken to a hospital.

North Carolina deaths above national average

State lawmakers subsequently changed the law so that all in-custody deaths need to be reported, but jails still would not have to report deaths if the inmate had been released from custody before dying.

Disability Rights’ 2017 report found North Carolina was trending above the national average for the percentage of jail deaths by suicide. The number of suicides dipped to eight in 2017 but rose to 12 in 2018.

Also in 2018, jail deaths in the state hit 46, the highest annual number since official tracking began. The 35 deaths reported in the first nine months of this year shows North Carolina on track to equal or exceed that record for 2019.

Deaths by overdose also continue to be a problem in county jails, the new report said. Last year, 11 deaths, or nearly one in four, involved an overdose. That’s nearly three times the four overdose deaths from 2017. The report did not have information for deaths by overdose so far this year.

Jails have been buffeted by two trends in recent years that are contributing to the rising death toll. The first is the closure of many mental institutions over the past two decades that have left many who suffer from mental illness with few treatment options. Jail often becomes the last resort.

In more recent years, the explosion of cheap opiates caused skyrocketing addiction rates and related criminal conduct that brought another unstable population into the jails.

Both groups carry a heightened risk for suicide or overdose, creating a greater need for intensive supervision. But today as jails try to respond to that demand, they face pressure from the state prison system, which is so understaffed it is not able to take in as many newly convicted felons who are sitting in county jails.

A legislative committee this week heard that as many as 1,000 felons are in county jails awaiting placement — the biggest backlog in 10 years, the NC Insider reported.

The Disability Rights report found that 70% of the inmates who committed suicide over the past two years were 40 years old or younger. Nearly all – 95% – had not been convicted and “were being held in jail due to arrest or awaiting trial,” the report said.

A majority of the suicides happened within a week of the inmates entering the jail. In nearly half of the 20 suicides, state Department of Health and Human Services investigators found problems with inmate supervision, the report said.

Two of the suicides were in Wake County, including the death of April Cumbo, a 42-year-old mother of two, which the N&O had reported on last year. In Durham, Uniece Fennell, 17, died after hanging herself in 2017 and earlier this year the county paid her mother $650,000 to settle a wrongful death claim. Mecklenburg County had three suicides in 2018.

April Cumbo’s death and the 32 others potentially put North Carolina on pace to easily exceed the highest annual death toll for inmates in county jails.

Most deaths happen in 24 hours

Most of the overdose deaths in the past two years occurred within 24 hours of the inmate entering the jail, the report said. It pointed to jail staff failing to notice “obvious signs” of overdose in some of those cases.

Some jails have made changes to improve inmate supervision and care. Mecklenburg and Durham counties, for example, have opened special units for inmates with mental illness.

But better standards for all the state’s jails would go further to reducing deaths, said Susan Pollitt, a senior attorney for Disability Rights NC.

“The human tragedy is going to continue to roll out until proper responses are taken,” she said. “These responses are not dramatic. They are nationally accepted policies and procedures that every jail should be operating under.”

Disability Rights shared copies of letters the sheriffs and their association sent to state officials asking that the rules be delayed until lawmakers review them. They cited eight rule changes in particular, including those for supervision rounds and suicide prevention programs.

Eddie Caldwell, the executive vice president for the association, said the sheriffs have worked with state DHHS officials to address many concerns with the proposed rules, but some issues still remain.

“There was a whole host of rule changes that they recommended and we worked with DHHS and got a lot of them adjusted in a way that would be workable for sheriffs, but there are a number of them that are not practically feasible and those are the ones that we objected to,” he said.

Caldwell said he hasn’t seen the report and couldn’t speak to its findings.

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Dan Kane began working for The News & Observer in 1997. He covered local government, higher education and the state legislature before joining the investigative team in 2009.