38 NC jail inmates have died this year. Nearly half involved lack of supervision.

38 NC jail inmates have died this year. Nearly half involved lack of supervision.

RALEIGH, NC (News and Observer) - In the early morning hours of Aug. 3, detention officers walked by Tony Edward Long's cell in the Brunswick County jail six times, only looking in once. One of the officers entered the cell and took out a mattress, state records show.

All during this time, Long lay on the bed with both feet touching the floor. That was an odd position for a sleeping inmate, and when a nurse walked in at 5:54 a.m., she discovered he wasn't asleep at all. He had died shortly after midnight from pneumonia.

Long, 36, is one of 38 inmates so far this year who died behind bars or at a hospital after becoming infirm in a county jail. It is two shy of the highest number of jail inmate deaths since the state began tracking them in 1997 — 40 deaths in 2015.

In Long's case and 17 others, state investigators found problems with inmate supervision. That, too, is nearing the record annual number of 19 supervision failures tied to inmate deaths — set in 2015 — since the state began regularly reviewing jail deaths in 2012.

It's unclear if North Carolina's increases in jail deaths are part of a national trend. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics has yet to release its annual report, which would cover the 2015 year.

The North Carolina agency that investigates jails has stepped up its probes. In prior years, the state Construction Section within the Department of Health and Human Services looked into roughly two-thirds of inmate deaths. This year, they will have investigated all but two of them. Five deaths are still being investigated.

"We are looking into as many as we can possibly look at," said Steven Lewis, who leads the construction section.

In August, The News & Observer published a five-part series, Jailed to Death, that investigated inmate deaths in county jails. The series found roughly a third of the inmate deaths in the past five years involved supervision issues such as failing to check inmates as required, broken cameras or intercoms that result in supervision breakdowns, or leaving items in cells that inmates can use to kill themselves. The reporting also revealed a loophole that allowed jails to avoid reporting deaths if inmates had died in a hospital.

The series prompted more attention to jail deaths, and calls for reform. Lewis said the series helped convince more jails to report inmate deaths in the hospital, which may account for some of the increase this year. At least two death reports from jails note the inmate was no longer in custody and had died in the hospital.

But this year's deaths continue to illustrate problems with supervision. In Long's case, the Brunswick jail fired two detention officers and suspended another for failing to follow "policies and safeguards in place," said Emily Flax, a spokeswoman for the Brunswick County Sheriff's Office.

She said the office couldn't comment further until an internal investigation is completed.

The deaths also show jail detention officers continue to deal with two societal problems that make their jobs more difficult. Many of the deaths involve inmates who are mentally ill or addicted to drugs such as opioids.

These inmates require more intensive supervision. Jails are required to check on most inmates at least twice an hour. But inmates who suffer from mental illness or are suicidal, are believed to be on drugs or alcohol, or are behaving erratically or violently, need to be checked at least four times an hour, according to state regulations.

Many of the supervision failures this year happened when inmates who fit one or more of those profiles were not classified as needing more frequent monitoring, or when detention officers failed to perform those additional checks when inmates had been determined to need them. In some cases, jail officials said they were performing the proper checks, but could offer no proof as they are required to.

Davidson County's jail has had four deaths in the past five years, including two this year. The state has cited it for supervision failures in each one.

On July 2, Ricky Vanhoy was arrested on an out-of-state warrant. He was combative and seeking to harm himself. He should have been monitored at least four times an hour, but jail video showed he had been checked only twice in the roughly 100 minutes before he was found in distress.

An autopsy showed Vanhoy, 30, had swallowed a bag containing a narcotic, which had leaked into his stomach, Davidson County Sheriff David Grice told The Dispatch of Lexington.

Six weeks after Vanhoy died, James Ross Curry, 59, was found in distress in his cell by another inmate. He later died in the jail. A cause has yet to be made public.

A DHHS investigator checked the electronic supervision logs. They indicated Curry had gone unwatched for nearly 70 minutes before the other inmate alerted detention officers. The logs didn't reflect any checks in Ross' unit or in four others with a total of 196 beds during the hour-long shift in which he was found in distress.

Grice could not be reached for comment about the deaths. In written responses to DHHS, Maj. Steve Hedrick, the jail administrator, said in both cases correction officers were checking inmates but failed to document those checks. He said staff have been warned they could face "time off without pay, termination, and possible criminal charges" for failing to document inmate checks.

In October, state lawmakers with a justice and public safety oversight committee held a hearing to learn more about jail deaths and state regulations. Sen. Shirley Randleman, a Wilkesboro Republican, said another oversight committee on health and human services matters will likely be seeking information in early 2018.

"That is something that will be looked into," she said.

In the meantime, Lewis said his section, the SBI and the state training academy are looking to improve training on suicide prevention for detention officers. Over the past three years, suicides have accounted for nearly half of inmate deaths, which is higher than the national average.