Drug-related Deaths, Inadequate Access to Medical Care also Rise


March 24, 2022

More people in NC jails died by suicide in 2020 than any other year, a particularly disturbing finding because these 21 preventable deaths occurred at the same time new regulations required jails to have suicide prevention programs, according to a new report issued by Disability Rights North Carolina (DRNC).

DRNC’s findings are deeply troubling and demonstrate that every year, NC’s jails get more dangerous, especially for people with disabilities. This is the fourth such report DRNC has issued to draw attention to the alarming increases in suicide deaths. The scope of this report is broader than previous reports, however, looking not just at suicides but also death by overdose and those occurring because of inadequate access to medical care.

In 2020, North Carolina had a record number of deaths in NC jails. Fifty-six people died due to suicide, illness, or injury, an unacceptably high number. Thirty-two of these deaths were from suicide or substance use related, including overdose and withdrawal. This number is up from 30 deaths in 2019, and 22 in 2018. It is also significant that this steady increase of deaths in 2020 took place at the same time some jails took steps to decrease their overall jail populations due to the pandemic.

“This report demonstrates North Carolina needs more stringent oversight of our jails. That the number of deaths by suicide actually increased during the same year jails were required to put in place suicide prevention programs should be an emergency wake up call to legislators, sheriffs, jail administrators, and our communities,” said Susan H. Pollitt, Criminal Legal Supervising Attorney. “By my review of media accounts and obituaries, these 21 people left behind at least 18 kids and six grandchildren. These families will carry these losses with them for the rest of their lives.”

National data shows that NC jails are failing when compared to national and regional trends. “NC jails have higher suicide rates compared with the NC general population and the national incarcerated population,” said Luke Woollard, Criminal Legal Attorney. “Since 2014, the suicide rate in North Carolina jails has been far higher than the suicide rate in NC’s non-incarcerated population. This gap has increased recently, and in both 2019 and 2020, the NC jail suicide rate was around nine times the suicide rate of the non-incarcerated population.”

NC jails house some of the most vulnerable people in society, including those with acute mental health and substance use disorders. In large part due to NC’s abject failure to invest in community mental health services, many people end up in crisis and are brought to jail rather than proper care facilities. Too many people are caught in the criminal legal system due to untreated or insufficiently treated mental health disabilities and substance use. Despite a needlessly large jail population, DRNC’s urgent appeals for sheriffs and legislators to improve mental health and substance use services have gone largely unheeded – with devastating consequences.

“These appalling in-custody deaths are the direct result of NC’s continued failure to improve mental health and substance use services in NC jails and communities. We cannot allow this inhumane suffering and loss of life to continue when there are remedies that can be affordably and effectively implemented,” Pollitt said.

DRNC issued five recommendations that are detailed in the report:

  • Require effective, system-wide suicide prevention measures in NC jails
  • Provide adequate medical care for incarcerated people
  • Pass legislation to provide more transparency about the conditions in NC jails
  • Adequately fund the jail regulation unit at the NC Division of Health Service Regulation
  • Engage in community Stepping Up campaigns

The report contains brief descriptions of the circumstances of some of the deaths, as well as a review of the financial costs borne by taxpayers when families successfully sue for damages related to the negligent care of their loved ones.


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.


Susan H. Pollitt, Criminal Legal Team Supervising Attorney

Luke Woollard, Criminal Legal Team Attorney
919-856-2195, ext. 211