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Report: County jails in North Carolina have safety issues

Durham County Detention Facility
Ildar Sagdejev (Specious)

This story was updated at 2:45 p.m. on Dec. 12 with a statement from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

A new report from Disability Rights NC says North Carolina's county jails suffer from a lack of oversight.

A state Department of Health and Human Services division inspects jails for inmate supervision and health, overcrowding, sanitation and fire safety. A team of three people in the DHHS Division of Health Service Regulation is responsible for reviewing all 109 county jails.

Disability Rights NC examined inspection reports from 2017 to 2019. It found 41 jails failed every inspection over those two years. Only 15 facilities passed all checks, according to the report, and 86% of all failures were due to "construction/sanitation issues," such as a lack of clean showers or working HVAC systems.

Often, according to Disability Rights NC, jails fail inspections for the same problems over and over.

"In 211 instances, a facility failed an inspection for the exact reason it failed the previous biannual inspection," the report said.

According to the report, inaction by sheriffs has led to inmate deaths in Vance, Rowan, Richmond and other counties.

The DHHS Secretary has the power to close jails that are considered dangerous to staff or people in custody. When a jail fails inspection, the local sheriff must devise a "plan of correction" to address the problem. The Division of Health Service Regulation will then approve the plan.

The Disability Rights NC report says DHHS needs more staff and funding to address jail safety issues fully. The report compares the enforcement of safety rules for hospitals and healthcare facilities with those for county jails.

"When inspecting those facilities, DHSR has the authority to levy various fines and to immediately order safety violations to be corrected before leaving the premises. By contrast, when a jail fails an inspection, there are no fines levied or immediate consequences for jail administrators. The state does not require jails to quickly address safety violations, endangering many lives," the report said.

In a statement provided to WUNC, the Department of Health and Human Services said, "Safeguarding the health, safety and well-being of all North Carolinians is a top priority for NCDHHS. Our Division of Health Services Regulation has a team of three people who inspects for health and safety issues at 109 jails. NCDHHS has advocated for additional staffing, resources, and support for other programs to support this team and local law enforcement partners in achieving that mission. We appreciate DRNC calling attention to that need."

Bradley George is WUNC's AM reporter. A North Carolina native, his public radio career has taken him to Atlanta, Birmingham, Nashville and most recently WUSF in Tampa. While there, he reported on the COVID-19 pandemic and was part of the station's Murrow award winning coverage of the 2020 election. Along the way, he has reported for NPR, Marketplace, The Takeaway, and the BBC World Service. Bradley is a graduate of Guilford College, where he majored in Theatre and German.