Senate leader Phil Berger discusses jail deaths
North Carolina’s 113 local jails may be in for reforms of their inmate supervision and death reporting practices after a News & Observer series identified 51 inmates who died over the past five years after inadequate monitoring.
Senate leader Phil Berger said he was troubled by the number of deaths in the jails and the cases in which supervision was lacking. He wants a legislative oversight committee to look into the state’s role in keeping inmates safe.
“It’s something that should not occur, certainly at that level,” said Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, of the more than 150 jail deaths that have happened in the past five years.
The N&O’s Jailed to Death series earlier this month found that one in three of those inmate deaths had supervision problems. In some cases, inmates who died from suicides or health problems hadn’t been checked on for hours.
The five-part series also found that jails weren’t reporting some deaths to the state agency that oversees supervision because the inmates – after being injured or becoming infirm in the jail – died in the hospital. That state agency, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Construction Section, has said it lacks much in the way of enforcement when jails do a poor job supervising inmates.
North Carolina’s jails are dealing with increasing numbers of inmates with mental illness and drug addiction, which makes supervision even more important. For the past three years jail suicides have accounted for nearly 50 percent of inmate deaths, which is higher than the national average.
The series also reported two state judges each sealed a case in which the family of an inmate who died alleged negligent care.
Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat and former chief district judge, said she plans to file legislation for next year’s short session that will take up several issues raised in the series. Morey had said the N&O’s findings on the lack of supervision in inmate deaths were “appalling.”
Morey said she wants to develop legislation that would close the “in the hospital” loophole, pursue tighter screening and supervision for inmates and expand training for detention officers. She wanted state officials to have more resources to investigate deaths, and more teeth to go after jails when a poorly supervised inmate dies. She also wants to prevent judges from closing off the details of settlements involving claims against jails in an inmate death.
She wants to address a key factor in many inmate deaths: People suffering from mental illness and/or drug addiction.
“Where are the advocates for these people?” she said of inmates. “They have to have advocates. I mean we take people in and they become, really, wards of the state, and it’s the state’s responsibility to keep them safe and have the care they need.”
Berger and other elected officials say they agree with some of the changes Morey wants to make. He and state Attorney General Josh Stein said all deaths that stem from something that happened inside the jail should be reported to the DHHS so they can be investigated.
“I believe that there is real value in having accurate reporting of deaths that occur involving inmates, and I think that it shouldn’t matter whether the person’s in custody or not,” said Stein, a Democrat and former state senator from Raleigh.
He said the DHHS’ construction section should have more resources to thoroughly investigate inmate deaths, and should have a wider range of penalties available to push jails to comply with safety and security standards. Currently, the DHHS unit’s only stick, according to the regulations, is to recommend to the DHHS secretary to close the jail.
The law lists a misdemeanor offense for detention officers who violate state supervision requirements, but no one contacted by the N&O could cite a case where it has been used. It’s also unclear who would file such a charge.
Rep. Allen McNeill, an Asheboro Republican, is a former longtime chief deputy for the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office and oversaw the county jail. As a lawmaker, he leads the budget-writing committee for justice and public safety.
“I believe North Carolina has sufficient regulations regarding inmate care and safety,” he said in an email. “Each jail is inspected yearly to look for compliance with regulations.”
He said sheriffs and jails “got a bad deal” when mental health reforms did not provide community support for those with mental illness and drug abuse. As a result, many of them have ended up in jails on minor offenses, but they are a higher risk for suicides, overdoses and serious health issues.
He also said part of the problem is many jails are old and “seriously understaffed,” but he saw that as mostly a county issue.
Pender County Sheriff Carson Smith Jr. is president of the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association. He said sheriffs would follow any reforms lawmakers saw fit to pass. He saw little issue with requiring the reporting of inmate deaths in hospitals, or with increased resources for the DHHS unit that regulates safety and security.
He said he hoped lawmakers would focus on ways to reduce the high percentage of mentally ill and drug addicted people behind bars. Some jails have reported these inmates make up more than half of their population.
“A lot of these people that have previous mental health issues, they just don’t need to be in jail,” Smith said. “That could be another side of it that the legislature could look at.”
Stein said lawmakers took a step toward reducing the number of drug-addicted inmates in the future by passing legislation he helped draw up that places tighter controls on the prescribing of opioids such as oxycodone. He said lawmakers could go further by approving Medicaid expansion as part of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Berger said he wants those with mental illness and drug addiction to get help. But he wants to make sure dollars that lawmakers have already allocated are being put to work efficiently. He wants a legislative oversight committee to examine that as well.
“The taxpayers of North Carolina do spend a good bit of money, and put a lot of money and federal tax dollars though the Medicaid program into mental health services,” Berger said. “And it’s not just at jails. We’re having a lot of concerns about whether or not those dollars are actually getting spent to deal in an effective way with the populations that need those services.”
Berger also said judges should not be preventing the public from knowing how their money was spent on settlements in jail death cases. He disagreed with a state Superior Court judge’s grounds for closing a settlement in Haywood County. That judge found the part of the jail used for medical treatment qualified as a medical facility, and therefore was protected from the disclosure of a settlement.
“I disagree that a cell in a jail just because it’s designated for someone who is either sick or has mental health issues is a quote ‘hospital facility,’”Berger said. “I think that’s a misinterpretation of the law.”