Statement from June 11 Durham County Board of Commissioners Meeting

The following statement was given by SCSJ attorneys Ian Mance and Whitley Carpenter at the June 11 Durham County Board of Commissioners regarding Durham County’s Fiscal Year 2018-19 Budget:

“My name is Ian Mance. I’m an attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, and we along with Hank Ehlies of South Carolina, represent Ms. Julia Graves, who is here with me tonight. Ms. Graves is the mother of Uniece Fennell, a child, who was found deceased, hanging in the Durham County Detention Facility in March of last year.

We are here tonight because the proposed budget fails to address long-standing safety issues at the facility that Niecey’s death, and other recent deaths, have brought to light. We respectfully urge you to reconsider.

For fifteen years prior to Niecey’s death, the county was aware of a hanging risk that existed in the facility. In 2002, Sheriff Worth Hill circulated a memorandum warning of hanging hazards that existed in the window bars, citing four deaths that had occurred over the prior 6 years. Following those warnings, this commission took no action and chose not to spend the modest sum of money, less than $100,000, that it would have taken to address the issue.

The next year, in 2003, Sheriff Hill wrote to the County Manager, and again urged that “every possible attempt be made to correct these structural facility problems as soon as possible.” Again, this Commission took no action to fund such corrections.

Over the following years, the county was repeatedly warned by state inspectors with the Department of Health and Human Services that it needed to address the hanging hazards in the Durham County Detention Facility. This commission did not fund the needed modifications, and people continued to die. We have had far too many hanging deaths in the facility since it opened in 1996 and countless attempts. Recently, the Sheriff finally made some changes designed to mitigate the hanging risk, but the fact remains it took more than 20 years for action to be taken.

There are other outstanding safety issues at the facility that this budget fails to account for, and we cannot wait another 20 years—we can’t afford to wait even one more year—for this to become a priority.

My client’s daughter, Uniece Fennell, was 16 years old when she was placed in DCDF with adult detainees. In almost any other state, and in many counties here in North Carolina, this would have never happened.

In 2003, the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act set a national standard of total sight and sound separation between detained children and adults. Under federal law, children under 18 are not to be housed or to come in contact with adults in detention facilities. A decade and a half later, Durham County has still failed to meet that standard. Children as young as 16 years old are still placed in dangerous housing situations that they are not in any way prepared to handle. This practice actively endangers the life of every child in custody. And this is no small number of people we’re talking about—we average about a dozen and a half children in detention at any given time.

This budget does not reflect that those children are a priority to this Commission. We are engaging in a practice that almost every county in America has long abandoned, and our budget gives no indication that we are attempting to do anything to change that.

Children who are charged as adults in Durham County need to have their own physical space where their safety can be assured. The Broad Street facility will not take them, and the detention center, where they’re currently housed, does not have a space set aside for them. These children either need to have their own standalone facility in Durham County or the current one needs to be modified to comply with the federal PREA safety standards.

North Carolina began the process last year of raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction. That alone will not solve this problem for you. By 2020, we will end the practice of intermingling children and adults, but it’s not going to build or modify any facilities. If this Commission fails to make this issue a priority, the result will be that children like Niecey will be shipped out of Durham County to state facilities, where it will be difficult if not impossible for their parents and loved ones to visit them and provide them with the support they need during the most difficult time in their lives.

Separately, this Commission needs to take a hard look at the state of medical and psychiatric care in DCDF, which is inadequate, certainly with respect to child detainees. There have been far too many deaths in this facility, and a common thread seems to be inadequate risk assessment at intake and inadequate monitoring of people in order to identify and intervene with respect to serious medical and psychiatric conditions. My client did not learn until after her child had passed away in March that she had been placed on suicide watch the previous November. No one from the jail notified her or involved her in devising an appropriate response. This sort of thing does not happen in a facility that is properly attuned and sensitive to the complex mental and medical needs with which many people in the facility are struggling.

If this Commission is serious about getting a handle on the problems at the jail, it should revisit this proposed budget and commit to allocating the resources necessary to addressing these problems. Thank you.”