Enough is enough is enough. So far this year, 38 inmates in North Carolina have died either behind bars or at a hospital after falling ill in a county jail. This is the second highest number of such deaths in the 20 years the state has been keeping track of them.
In 18 of these deaths, state investigators found problems with the supervision of inmates. The record for “supervision failures” as they’re called is 19, in 2015.
Here is one example, this one being the latest inmate death connected to a lack of supervision, as reported by The News & Observer’s Dan Kane: A Brunswick County Jail inmate, Tony Edward Long, was in his cell in August, and detention officers passed his cell on the evening shift six times, but looked in just once. It was curious that Long was on the bed with both feet touching the floor.
At just before 6 a.m., a nurse walked in and found that Long was dead. He had died, it turned out, shortly after midnight from pneumonia.
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Under a new administration, the state agency investigating jails is looking into more such deaths. That should help.
But there is no question that more supervision – and as previously reported, county jails are woefully short of personnel and hard-pressed to keep adequate numbers of guards given the low pay and high risk of such jobs – is desperately needed.
The News & Observer last summer published a five-part series, “Jailed to Death,” that looked at the deaths of inmates in county jails, and the look was disturbing: failure of supervision, either failing to check on inmates enough or broken cameras or intercoms, sometimes leaving contraband in cells that inmates used to kill themselves. And a curious loophole in regulations meant that jails could avoid reporting deaths if inmates had been moved to hospitals and died there, even if they’d become ill in jails.
Since that series ran, additional attention has gotten more jails to report those deaths in hospitals. But the problems with staffing continue, evidenced not just by supervision problems of inmates but by the deaths of some guards, as reported in a Charlotte Observer series this fall. Those deaths at the hands of inmates were a result of a shortage of guards, something that continues to be a problem though the state is trying to improve pay.
In the case of The N&O’s latest report on inmates’ deaths, however, it’s clear a lot more has to be done. The state cannot put those in its custody at unnecessary risk with the excuse of staff shortages or inadequate funding to keep equipment up to date.
It’s good that the administration of Gov. Roy Cooper is paying serious attention to the problem, but lawmakers with the power of the purse need to make inmate safety, especially in the cases of inmates who are ill, a greater priority. That’s to help inmates and administrators who want to do their jobs.
The state also has to look even harder at more intense help for inmates with mental illness and drug addictions, including ever-spreading opiod addiction. There is likely not a single county sheriff in North Carolina who isn’t dealing with these problems and also not a single county sheriff who has the money needed to deal with them.
And county funding just isn’t going to be enough to face down this crisis. The General Assembly must make prison safety, in all its aspects and for guards and prisoners alike, a top priority in the coming year.