CULLOWHEE – The question of who is ultimately responsible for the operation of safe jails was a hot topic at a Jail Safety Summit on Thursday (April 17) at Western Carolina University, but on one issue there was consensus – everyone involved had better work together to spot safety problems and eliminate them before a tragedy occurs, and not after.
Mike Bonfoey
The summit at Western drew state officials and about 60 participants -- including detention center staff, medical officials, sheriffs, and county commissioners -- from 20 North Carolina counties to listen to experts in jail management and legalities hash out some of the difficulties inherent in the operation of detention facilities.

Patrice Roesler, assistant to the executive director of intergovernmental programs for the Association of County Commissioners, told the group that each jail in the state is required to have an operations manual that covers 13 topics relating to jail management, including provisions for medical care and food, and detention center staff must be trained in the application of the manual.

Individuals who have not been convicted of a crime, those being held “pre-trial,” must be treated differently from those who have been sentenced, Roesler said. “You cannot have your level of detainment rise to the level of punishment” in the handling of pre-trial inmates, she said.

Roesler listed some “basic safety indicators” that officials should watch out for at their jails. Those include records of accidents; worker’s compensation claims; inmate assaults on other inmates and staff; the number and type of substantiated staff misconduct claims; fire code violations; and the number of incidents in which a jail’s classification system is compromised, such as when a small inmate is housed in the same cell as a large inmate.

Roesler said several bills have been introduced in the N.C. General Assembly that address jail safety. One, in particular, would require all detention centers in the state to have architectural and engineering inspections in the coming year, and if violations are found the deficiencies would have to be corrected within three years. The bill includes no appropriations to help local governments carry out those inspections, she said.

“I’ve got to tell you, there is a lot of sentiment in the Legislature for changing the relationship of the state with county jails because of the Mitchell County jail fire,” Roesler said, referring to the May 2002 incident in which eight inmates lost their lives.

“What you do not want to happen in your county is for a crisis to raise public awareness of what needs to happen. You want to be on the front end of that and do it in a positive environment, and not a negative one. It’s a joint effort,” she said.

Michael Hamden, executive director of N.C. Prisoner Legal Services, a non-profit organization that provides legal advice to inmates, said he believes it is a “confusing morass as to who is responsible” for jail safety.

Hamden said if Prisoner Legal Services identifies “constitutional deficiencies” at a jail, the agency contacts the officials who operate the jail. “Litigation happens when officials act from an adversarial posture,” he said, but a better approach is to “identify problems and work together to correct them.”

“This is not a political issue. It’s not about criminal coddling. If you don’t provide basic minimums of care, then you’re violating the law,” Hamden said.

Many jail problems are caused by overcrowding, and when deficiencies occur because of that situation, sheriffs should lock the jail and refuse to accept additional inmates, he said.

Other speakers addressing issues relating to jail safety included William McBlief, N.C. assistant attorney general; Jill D. Moore, assistant professor of public law and government in the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Robert Lewis, chief of the Division of Facility Services of the Jail and Detention Section of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services; and Western faculty members Bruce D. Berger and Phillip B. Kneller.

The summit at Western was organized at the request of the late District Attorney Charles Hipps, in response to tragic events in Western North Carolina detention centers in which prisoners died, including the Mitchell County jail fire.

The summit was organized and sponsored by the Local Government Training Program in the university’s Division of Continuing Education and Summer School, and was co-sponsored by the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, and the School of Government.

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Last modified: Thursday, April 17, 2003
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