Prison Safety Issues in North Carolina Indicative of Larger, National Issue

The prison safety issues in North Carolina are representative of a larger, national issue. Federal prisons nationwide are understaffed and have been so for some time. However, the hiring freeze at the beginning of the Trump administration and emphasis on reducing the size of both the government and the budget has intensified the problem under the Trump administration. Since the staff sizes at many federal prisons has been reduced, many support workers have had to step in as guards. This has made many prisons more vulnerable to violence, including assaults on prison staff.

In North Carolina, prison safety issues have been coming up for some time, and many prisons are overcrowded in addition to being understaffed. Reform advocates also point to the fact that much of the staff is undertrained and lacks adequate equipment. In October, there was an inmate attack in Elizabeth City at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution that left 4 staffers dead. Earlier this year, there was a stabbing at Lanesboro Correctional Institution. Inmates and a corrections officer were injured.

Read more about prison safety in North Carolina here, and reforms being planned by lawmakers here.

Read about the issue in a national context here.

Durham County Jail Suicide Hazards

From 1998 to 2017, 12 people committed suicide in the Durham County jail by hanging themselves from window bars or ventilation grates. Although public records show that Durham County officials were aware of the suicide hazards, the last updates are just now being finished to fix these hazards.

Although 144 of 576 windows were fixed after the 1999 death of Gregory Gibson, budget considerations prevented the rest of the windows from being altered. Five more people hung themselves before they were fixed for $88,900 in 2017.

Durham County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs responded to public comment about recent deaths, including 17-year-old Uniece “Niecey” Fennell in October of 2017, by asking her staff to research what caused the delays. While documents from the Sherriff’s Office seem to suggest that the office lacked the funding to make the improvements, the office does have to request funding from the commissioners in order to get it. Evidence suggests that the funding was not always requested, although county commissioners have consistently been in favor of addressing the hazards quickly.

As far as the ventilation grates go, Sherriff Mike Andrews has been working to fix them slowly since 2012. So far, 164 vents in 82 cells have been modified, and 988 vents in 494 cells remain. All of the window bars have been fixed.

Read more here.

North Carolina Expands Opportunities for Certificates of Relief

In mid-June, the North Carolina Senate passed House Bill 774, “Amend Certificates of Relief.” Courts can issue “certificates of relief” to individuals. With this certificate, if that person is hired and commits a crime involving their job or employer, the employer is not held liable. Because the new law gives people with criminal records more opportunities to gain employment, it has the potential to reduce recidivism.

Harris County DA Stops Prosecuting Drug Cases Involving Small Amounts

Kim Ogg, the District Attorney of Harris County, Texas, has made the decision to stop prosecuting cases with very small amounts of drugs, known as “trace cases.” Ogg ran on a promise to make these changes in her 2014 campaign and successful 2016 campaign for District Attorney, and hopes to make better use of resources by not spending them on these cases. This change follows the end of the use of roadside field tests by the police department in July 2017 to decide if suspicious substances were drugs.

In trace cases, the amount of drugs is small enough that they cannot be tested or even used. Hundreds of innocent people in Harris County have pled guilty to drug charges for it to be later discovered that the substances they possessed were not drugs.

Learn more here.

New Durham DA’s Goals are Transparency and Accountability

Satana Deberry won the primary on May 8 to become the next District Attorney for Durham County, unseating incumbent District Attorney Roger Echols. She will begin her term in January.

Deberry, who has done criminal justice advocacy and policy work for 18 years, ran as a reform candidate, recognizing issues such money bail, police accountability, and racially discriminatory practices in the criminal justice system.

The Color of Change political action committee, which is part of a large racial justice organization, helped raise awareness about the District Attorney campaign, a race that does not always get attention.

Deberry’s goal is to create accountability for the office of District Attorney itself, from both inside the office and from the community. For example, she plans on doing research on what prosecutions are occurring and why. Additionally, by ending the money bail system for low level felonies, she hopes to keep less people in jail. Read more here.

Mecklenburg D.A. Aims to Address Mass Incarceration

In a special to the editorial board at the Charlotte Observer, Braxton Winston II, Charlotte City Councilman At-Large, highlighted criminal justice issues. Because of the money bail system, the majority of Charlotte’s jail population has not been convicted of a crime. They simply cannot pay bail. Additionally, African Americans are arrested at larger rates.

Winston also pointed to the promise of positive change with the election of District Attorney Spencer Merriweather. Merriweather won the primary and has no challenger for the position in November. The role of District Attorney is critical because of the power prosecutors have, such as deciding who gets charged and with what. In particular, Winston called attention to the power of the District Attorney to change the money bail system. Learn more here.