Disability Rights NC Uncovers Dire Need for Reforms to Jail Regulation System
For Immediate Release
December 8, 2022
A new Disability Rights North Carolina report, “A Slap on the Wrist and a Rubber Stamp: NC Lets Sheriffs Break All the Rules,” summarizes years of failed jail inspections across North Carolina. The investigation found that NC jails fail over half of all state inspections, and that weak enforcement mechanisms allow dangerous conditions to continue in NC jails for years.
The NC Division of Health Service Regulation (DHSR), a division of the NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), is responsible for ensuring that jails meet minimum safety standards. DHSR’s limited tools and personnel often leave them unable to hold jails to minimum safety standards, leading to chronic overcrowding, supervision failures, and lax fire safety. Many people have died in these unsafe conditions, even after many facilities fail inspection after inspection. In addition to these failures, DRNC’s investigation found several instances of jails falsifying records in attempts to pass inspection, for which there were no consequences.
While nearly 40 percent of the state’s 109 jails failed every inspection during the review period, DRNC found that 15 jails didn’t fail a single inspection during the same time period. In an additional 13 jails, there was just one inspection where jail regulators found one or more problems, and in these instances, jail administrators took quick action to correct the issues, showing that the minimal standards set forth in the Jail Rules are reasonable and can be readily met.
These are important issues for people with disabilities. Although one in five people in the US has a disability, nearly two in five people (38 percent) who are incarcerated have a disability. While unsafe conditions affect all people in jails, they can be particularly dangerous for individuals with physical, cognitive and mental health disabilities.
“These findings are deeply concerning,” said DRNC attorney Luke Woollard. “The conditions we found are extremely dangerous for all people in these overcrowded, under-supervised, unsafe jails, especially people with disabilities. The degree to which dangerous jails have been allowed to continue operating despite failing inspection after inspection is astounding.”
The report comes just weeks after a bill passed by the NC legislature went into effect that weakens an already threadbare jail regulatory system and removes transparency from the inspection process. Although an identical bill pushed by the NC Sheriff’s Association last session did not pass, this new law was slipped into the budget in a backroom deal with no input from advocates, voters, or those most affected by unsafe jails.
DRNC is calling on the NC General Assembly to increase transparency in the inspection process and to strengthen DHSR’s ability to regulate jails. The 3-person jail inspection team must be expanded, and DHSR must regulate jails effectively to ensure the safety of people who are incarcerated and jail staff. DHSR and the DHHS Secretary must also act vigorously to enforce the safety regulations that currently exist.
“DHSR is the only agency at any level with authority to hold jails to minimum safety standards,” said Virginia Knowlton Marcus, CEO of DRNC. “If they don’t have the tools or the staff to do that, we are leaving jails without any effective oversight. Our report, along with the ever-rising number of jail deaths, exposes a stark reality: an unregulated jail is a deadly jail.”
Every day nearly 20,000 people are in custody in NC jail facilities. They are our friends, family members, and loved ones. We must protect people in custody and jail staff by demanding that North Carolina enforce jail regulations so that entering a jail no longer comes with an inherent risk of serious injury or death.
About Disability Rights North Carolina
Disability Rights North Carolina is the federally mandated protection and advocacy system in North Carolina, dedicated to advancing the rights of all people with disabilities, of all ages, statewide. DRNC is an independent, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and a member of the National Disability Rights Network. Learn more about Disability Rights North Carolina at disabilityrightsnc.org.
DRNC Attorney, Criminal Justice Team, Luke Woollard, 919-856-2195, x211
DRNC Supervising Attorney, Criminal Justice Team, Susan Pollitt, 919-856-2195, x224