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North Carolina Jail Deaths Double in 6 Years

In the early morning hours of May 3, 2022, Kyle Kepley, 35, used a bedsheet to hang himself at the Rockingham County jail. An electrician who worked part-time and struggled with bipolar disorder and drug addiction, he had been detained when he was unable to post a $25,000 bond.

Kepley had landed in jail after a minor car accident revealed a warrant for failure to return to court for a traffic violation. He had also been hearing voices and having panic attacks, according to his mother. His girlfriend even drove him to a mental health facility, but Kepley could not bring himself to be admitted.

He was one of 77 detainees who died in North Carolina jails in 2022— the sixth year in a row of record deaths in the state’s jails. An investigation by the Raleigh News & Observer found that deaths in county jails in 2022 more than doubled over 2017, when 36 inmates died.

Suicide accounted for 23 deaths, and in 14 of those the state documented problems with supervision not occurring as mandated. Another 18 deaths were tied to drug overdoses or withdrawal complications. In some cases, detainees accessed drugs inside jails. 2022 also marked the fourth year in a row a detainee killed another. No one was charged in that death.

Jails avoided accountability for another 13 deaths by using a familiar reporting trick: They transported the detainee to a local medical facility for advanced care and then claimed the death happened “out of custody.” Autopsies, however, show some of those detainees became sick in jail and then died in a hospital or the state-owned Central Prison.

More than 50% of the deaths occurred at jails where inspectors from the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) found jail staff did not follow rules for supervising detainees. In previous years, DHHS investigators found supervision violations in 33% of deaths.

Sheriffs and prisoner advocates cite different reasons for the increasing loss of life in the state’s jails. The advocacy group Disability Rights North Carolina (DRNC) points to the “lack of a regulatory system that works and can enforce the jail rules.”

State jail regulations require guards to check detainees in person at least twice an hour, providing a better chance of aiding or rescuing detainees when they become sick or attempt to harm themselves or others.

Guards can be charged with misdemeanor criminal negligence under state law, but DHHS officials claim they lack the authority to use it. DHHS also has the authority to close a dangerous jail, a last-resort option.

DRNC says DHHS needs other means, such as fines, to force jails to maintain compliance with regulations. Staff Attorney Luke Woollard notes the department uses that power when adult homes and psychiatric facilities fail to meet state requirements.

Meanwhile sheriffs attribute the rising loss of life to the type of people who end up in jail and to the challenges of hiring enough guards to supervise them. Charles Blackwood, president of the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, said that “a growing number of people with drug addictions and mental illness behind bars” contributes to the rising death toll, “while jails are struggling to find enough [guards] to do the required [detainee] checks.”

The death of Andrew Hodge, 34, in the Rutherford County Detention Center is a perfect example of the deadly combination Blackwood referred to. The day before Hodge died from a fentanyl overdose, guards had to intervene in four other overdose cases. When DHHS investigated, the agency found 10 missed supervision checks of Hodge over the 20 hours leading up to his death on January 12, 2022.

Mecklenburg County had five detainee deaths in 2022, one by suicide, two from chronic health issues and two from causes that were not determined. Sheriff Garry McFadden said to look for the “hidden story” behind the rising death toll: The number of detainees who are saved from suicides and overdoses by his guards, who perform “roughly 2,200 checks per day” in county jails. McFadden added that guards must deal with medical emergencies or fights that can cause them to fall behind in their mandated supervisory checks.

McFadden also pointed to the role fentanyl plays in the rising death toll. Like many sheriffs nationwide, he recognized how lethal the synthetic opioid is, but he has not been able to stop it from being muled into county lockups—in fact he says nobody knows how. But he added that “state officials could help by providing funding… instead of adding punishments.”

State lawmakers seem poised to deliver what McFadden wants. Senate Bill 451, a bipartisan effort, was filed to provide sheriffs $10 million in funding to comply with state health and safety standards. “The money could be spent on infrastructure such as electronic systems that document inmate checks, but not personnel,” one of the bill sponsors said. The state House of Representatives’ budget also includes a $2 million competitive grant program to help jails procure addiction inhibitors, such as methadone and buprenorphine, which most lockups currently do not have. In addition, the General Assembly approved a Medicaid expansion which sheriffs hope will provide more pre-detention healthcare to prevent the downward spiral that frequently lands addicts and the mentally ill behind bars.

Gov. Roy Cooper (D) and the House have proposed funding to add two more DHHS jail investigators to the current three who are tasked with twice-yearly inspections at over 100 jails in the state, on top of the increasing number of death investigations.

The legislative remedies were not in place to save Kyle Kepley’s life, however. Legal redress is the only step available to his family at this point. They have hired attorney David Ventura of the CR Legal Team in Greensboro to investigate his death.  

Source: Raleigh News & Observer

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