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Deaths at North Carolina Jail Due to Lack of Medical, Mental Health Care

The deaths of four pre-trial detainees at the Durham County Jail in North Carolina are under investigation. Over the past 16 years, 10 other prisoners have died at the facility. Officials are remaining mum, referring questions to the jail’s medical contractor, Correct Care Solutions, which also is not commenting.

Dennis E. McMurray, 52, died at the jail on January 10, 2015. An autopsy found his death was due to an accidental drug overdose, which officials believe he ingested prior to the time he was arrested by narcotics officers. While at the jail he was in obvious distress.

“I talked to the [Durham County] sheriff [Mike Andrews] again, and he told me that when my dad first got there, he told him he was having trouble breathing, so they took him back to the medical part of the jail and they gave him some medicine and sent him back to his cell,” said Shakiyla Young, McMurray’s daughter.

“And I guess after that is when he start[ed] calling ‘I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!’, but nobody came to see what was wrong with him.”

Another investigation was launched into the August 31, 2015 death of prisoner Raphael M. Bennett, but few details about the circumstances of his death are available.

More, however, is known about the January 19, 2016 death of 29-year-old Matthew McCain, who had a history of diabetes and epilepsy.

“He said, ‘they’re not taking care of me in here,’” noted Ashley Canady, McCain’s girlfriend. “If he would’ve had his medicine and stuff, he would still be here today.”

McCain was last seen alive in his cell at 5:01 a.m., then found unresponsive at 5:30. An independent investigation conducted by the Durham County Department of Public Health found he had suffered a seizure earlier in the day, though there were no significant injuries.

“Individuals with seizure disorders often have no anatomic findings present at the time of autopsy to explain the presence of the seizure disorder,” the autopsy stated. “Individuals can die suddenly from a seizure despite adequate therapy with anti-seizure medications.”

McCain had been held at the Durham County jail since August 2015 on charges of assault on a female, assault with a deadly weapon, battery of an unborn child, communicating threats and domestic criminal trespass, according to jail records.

Most recently, at 3:30 a.m. on March 23, 2017, Uniece “Niecey” Fennell was found alone and dead in her cell at the jail, according to spokeswoman Tamara Gibbs. Fennell, 17, was being held on $5 million bail in the shooting death of Andre Bond in July 2016. Bond was killed in what appeared to have been a drive-by.

Detectives called to “an apparent suicide” at the jail found Fennell unresponsive, and paramedics pronounced her dead. She was not on suicide watch, Gibbs said, but did not say when Fennell was last checked before she died.

“The staff follows state guidelines that mandate detention officers to directly observe detainees twice within the same hour on an irregular basis,” she said by email. “The routine checks are increased to four times within the hour, if a detainee is intoxicated (blood alcohol content above 0.15), verbally abusive, displaying erratic behavior or under suicide observation.”

However, a state investigation found jailers had failed to check Fennell’s cell as required and did not report a comment from another prisoner that Fennell was threatening to harm herself, according to a July 7, 2017 news report. In the 31 hours before Fennell died, no checks were performed during two hours and only one check was made during each of four hours.

“She had been making suicidal threats prior to completion stating that she ‘wanted to kill herself’ but no one took her threats seriously as she did not show signs of following through,” an initial state medical examiner’s report stated.

“I feel that they failed to protect my daughter,” said Julia Graves, Fennell’s mother.

The director at the Durham County jail was replaced in May 2017, and policy changes were instituted to ensure cell checks are performed properly.

A federal assessment last year recommended – and Sheriff Andrews has said he wants to dedicate – a pod of cells in the jail for prisoners with mental health issues. Gibbs noted the sheriff’s office is working to fill staff vacancies in order to open a mental health pod. Andrews estimates one in four prisoners have mental health problems.

“Our officers are not mental health professionals,” said jail administrator Col. Anthony Prignano. “We are trained, granted, to recognize some signs, but we are not mental health professionals.”

The series of deaths at the jail has attracted the attention of a local advocacy group.

“There are all these claims that are coming out and the sheriff is saying everything’s fine, and yet under his watch, twelve people have attempted suicide, people are being denied medical care, and all of this other stuff is happening,” said Duke Divinity student Gregory Williams, a member of the Durham County Jail Investigation Team.  


Sources:Raleigh News-Observer, WRAL, WNCN

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