By Sarah Nagem
Jails in North Carolina’s Border Belt have repeatedly failed state inspections, racking up violations that include improper supervision, unsanitary conditions and fire hazards, an investigation by a statewide advocacy group shows.
The jails in Robeson, Scotland and Columbus counties failed every inspection between 2017 and 2019, according to a report released last month by Disability Rights North Carolina. They were among the nearly 38% of jails across the state that failed each inspection during that span.
The Bladen County jail failed four out of five inspections conducted by the state Division of Health Service Regulation, according to the report.
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Results of the investigation show that North Carolina does not hold sheriffs responsible for unsafe conditions at the state’s 109 jails, Disability Rights North Carolina says. Many jails have been dinged for repeated violations, including failure to properly supervise those who are housed there – a particular concern as inmate deaths in the state have increased each year since 2016, as reported by The News & Observer.
“When you start to see those supervision rounds missed, you start to see serious safety violations,” said Luke Woollard, an attorney for the advocacy group.
The Robeson County Detention Center was cited for six supervision failures during seven inspections, according to the report.
In 2021, after the report’s time frame, two inmates died in three months at the Robeson County Detention Center.
Stephen K. Hunt, 28, was found dead in a cell on March 10, 2021, six days after he was booked into the jail, according to the sheriff’s office. The SBI determined that former detention officers Larry Jones and Robbie Page, who resigned before they were charged, violated state-mandated rules for monitoring inmates, the sheriff’s office said.
State law mandates that detention officers check on inmates at least twice an hour, at unpredictable times, Woollard said.
Harley Strickland, 37, was found dead in her jail cell on June 25, 2021, after she did not show up for breakfast. She had been booked into the detention center on a charge of failing to appear for a court warrant, according to media reports at the time. An investigation led by the SBI led to the arrest of a Maxton woman, who was charged with narcotics violations in the jail.
Damien McLean, chief deputy at the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office, told the Border Belt Independent that authorities have responded appropriately to inmate deaths by requesting help from the SBI and enforcing in-house policies.
“We continue to monitor our staff daily and make any changes as needed to address any potential issues that could arise,” McLean said in an email.
In Columbus County, District Attorney Jon David asked the SBI to investigate after a man being held at the jail was severely beaten by four other inmates last summer.
Agents determined that jail staff failed to conduct mandatory checks, and video showed that detention officers didn’t see or respond to the beating until about 20 minutes had passed, according to David.
David detailed the situation in court documents first filed last fall as he asked the court to suspend or remove Jody Greene, the sheriff at the time, from office. Greene, who faced allegations of racism and corruption, resigned in early January for the second time in less than three months.
The Columbus County Sheriff’s Office did not return a request for comment for this story.
Staffing is a concern for many jails, as sheriffs struggle to fill job openings.
The Robeson County jail has about 10 vacancies, McLean said. With help from county commissioners, he said, the sheriff’s office “was able to recently get pay increases for all detention center staff that is comparable to other agencies within our region.”
Overcrowding in Scotland County; other violations
The Scotland County Detention Center received three overcrowding violations, more than any jail in the Border Belt region, according to the report by Disability Rights North Carolina.
The facility is equipped for 109 inmates – 94 men and 15 women, inspection reports show. During an inspection in February 2019, the jail housed 18 women, according to an inspector’s report.
Scotland County Sheriff Ralph Kersey did not respond to a request for comment.
Overcrowding is a major concern across the state, Woollard said, adding that the problem strains every aspect and function of a jail.
During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, many jails reduced their inmate populations to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. While inmate deaths continued to climb during that time, Woollard said reducing jail populations is key to ensuring safety.
Failures in supervision and overcrowding are major red flags, but Woollard said all safety violations, including fire hazards, are concerning. It’s important to remember, he said, that most inmates will return to their communities at some point. Some people who held in jails are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime.
“The harm that folks can suffer while in these facilities can affect them so that they’re worse when they come out than when they went in,” he said. “If you don’t have basic safety, you can’t expect these folks to rehabilitate.”
Here is a breakdown of violations outlined in the report by Disability Rights North Carolina:
Bladen County jail
One supervision failure
One overcrowding failure
Four construction/sanitation hazards
Two fire hazards
Inspectors noted mold in the facility and unsanitary showers.
Columbus County jail
Five supervision failures
Four construction/sanitation failures
There were repeated citations for allowing towels and paper on cell windows, blocking observation, along with repeated citations for dirty showers.
Robeson County jail
Six supervision failures
Seven construction/sanitation failures
Three fire hazard failures
There were repeated citations for failing to remove towels and sheets that block direct observation, along with repeated fire hazard violations.
Scotland County jail
Two supervision failures
Three overcrowding failures
One medical plan failure
Five construction/sanitation failures
One fire hazard failure
There were “several” citations for overcrowding and broken plumbing fixtures.