10 steps we could take to reduce jail deaths

Family looks for answers in Carteret County jail death

The family of Patrick O'Malley wonders why he was held in a restraining chair for nine hours while he was under arrest in the Carteret County jail in 2015. He was found dead in the jail after the incident. A state report shows he was held too lo
Up Next
The family of Patrick O'Malley wonders why he was held in a restraining chair for nine hours while he was under arrest in the Carteret County jail in 2015. He was found dead in the jail after the incident. A state report shows he was held too lo

Todd Lamont Caveness died two years ago after spending three weeks in the Wilson County jail. State law requires jails to provide a written report within five days of an inmate death.

So why didn't the jail file a report on Caveness' death within five days? Because he didn't die in the jail; he died two days after being taken from the jail to the hospital. His death was from a blood clot in his lungs caused by dehydration and malnutrition; he had refused to eat or drink in the jail, fearing someone would poison him.

It was the kind of death that the state Department of Health and Human Services would investigate to see if the jail followed state regulations for supervising inmates. And the department did investigate — but only after local news reports revealed Caveness' death and the state asked the jail to file a report. The state found the jail had not checked on Caveness in accordance with state regulations.

The News & Observer's Dan Kane and David Raynor reported on Caveness' death last year as part of their report "Jailed to Death." In the previous five years, 51 jail inmates died after lapses in supervision; that's one out of three inmate deaths during that time.

No state or federal agency knows exactly how many inmates die each year in North Carolina’s 113 jails, the N&O’s review showed. That needs to be fixed. At the least, the state needs more information, which in itself could improve jailers' vigilance. But legislators have made little progress in the nine months since the 51 deaths were revealed.

Senate leader Phil Berger was among the legislators who found the number of supervision failures troubling. But lawmakers on a legislative oversight committee that looked into jail deaths didn't address the issue.

Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, and co-chair of the oversight committee, said recently he was unaware of the high percentage of supervision failures tied to inmate deaths. He said he wanted to learn more. "Sounds like we didn't ask the right questions," he said. Indeed.

Now that the legislature is back in session, here are some steps it should take to reduce the number of unsupervised jail deaths:

Close the loophole and require jails to file a report when an inmate dies in the jail, en route to a hospital or at the hospital.

Require DHHS to file an annual report on the number of jail deaths and how many involved lack of supervision.

Require that families be notified when the state determines there was a lack of supervision.

Make clear that jail infirmaries are not medical facilities, as one judge claimed so that a jail could shield details of a death settlement.

Make clear that private medical providers working as contractors in jails should not be allowed to keep secret settlements.

Provide penalties for repeat violators. When jails repeatedly get caught failing to properly supervise inmates, the result shouldn't be a letter from the state seeking corrective action.

Make SBI investigations into jail deaths public, and give the agency more authority to charge when there are clear cases of negligence, recklessness or malfeasance. Give more authority to DHHS to call in the SBI to assist with investigations.

Provide guidelines for the proper level of staffing. Some law enforcement officials think many county jails are understaffed. There are no guidelines for staff-inmate ratios.

Fund up-to-date video and monitoring equipment. The state will have a surplus of $350 million in this budget year. For a small fraction of that amount, each jail in the state could have modern surveillance equipment.

Divert those with mental illness and drug addiction for treatment. This is the toughest challenge, as our jails are filled with people who should receive psychiatric or drug treatment or both. Alamance County recently announced it would create a center for mentally ill people who might otherwise wind up in jail. The state should see what can be learned from this program.

Sen. Berger said last year of the jail deaths: "“It’s something that should not occur, certainly at that level." Since the beginning of last year, 21 inmates have died after supervision lapses, some of them after The N&O report. It's time for the legislature to act.