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Jailed North Carolina Teenager Commits Suicide; $650,000 Wrongful Death Settlement

by Ed Lyon

After a troubled and tormented life, capped by a year of being assaulted and bullied in a Durham, North Carolina adult jail, 17-year-old Uniece Fennell hanged herself in her cell. 

Uniece was raised in California. Her father, an abusive drug addict, had recently been released from jail when she and her twin brother were born. By 2003, her father had become so uncontrollable that Uniece’s mother had him removed from their home and eventually the family relocated to Durham, hoping for a fresh start. Uniece’s brother had disappeared, so he was left behind. 

After a fight at school, Uniece was recommended for mental health care by a school evaluator. Once her brother found and rejoined the family, she settled down but was arrested on a murder charge and, despite being a minor, was housed in the adult detainee section of Durham County’s jail. 

Already in a depressed state, Uniece began suffering verbal and physical abuse from the adult prisoners on a daily basis. Many were gang members, awaiting trials on murder and accomplice-to-murder charges. Uniece’s California speech dialect set her apart, making her a target for bullying.

Jail guard Michelle Henderson, herself related to many of the prisoners and a suspected member of the Bloods gang, reportedly harassed Uniece and facilitated her prisoner-relatives in their abuse of the teenager. Then things got even worse when Uniece’s twin brother was gunned down on Durham’s streets.

Her brother’s death drove Uniece into such a deep depressive state that jailers placed her on suicide watch for four days. She was then released, without a mental health evaluation or counseling, back to the general jail population where the mental and physical abuse by adult prisoners continued. Four months later, on March 23, 2017, Uniece tied a bed sheet to a bar on her cell window and hanged herself. [See: PLN, Sept. 2017, p.20].

For years, through at least two sheriff’s administrations, the design of the bars on cell windows had been the subject of debate by the county commissioner’s court and other officials. The design easily allowed suicide by hanging, as did the ventilation grills. Unsurprisingly, the jail had a high suicide rate.

A team of attorneys consisting of Ian Mance, Whitley Carpenter and Ivy Johnson from the Justice Project of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, and attorney Hank Ehlies with the Policy Council Concerning Law Enforcement and the Mentally Ill, represented Uniece’s estate. The parties reached a settlement that was formalized with a complaint and settlement agreement filed in federal court.

The settlement terms included the removal of all suicide hazards from the jail; providing separate detention areas for youthful detainees to keep them away from adult prisoners; mandatory Crisis Intervention Training for jail guards; hiring a licensed clinical social worker to be on 24-hour call at the facility; developing a system to inform a juvenile prisoner’s relatives in the event of any life-threatening situations like a suicide attempt; and a $650,000 payment, inclusive of attorney’s fees and costs, to Uniece’s mother. 

“Losing a child is the most difficult thing I have ever experienced. It was important to our family that Durham change the way it treats children in its custody. It gives me some peace of mind to know that if this settlement is approved, children detained in the future will be treated more humanely,” stated Uniece’s mother, Julia Graves.

The federal district court approved the settlement on April 19, 2019. See: Graves v. Durham County, U.S.D.C. (M.D. NC), Case No. 1:19-cv-00316-TDS-JLW. 

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Additional source: southerncoalition.org

Related legal case

Graves v. Durham County