The family of a teenager who died in the Durham County Detention Facility in 2017 has reached a settlement with the county and the sheriff’s office that their lawyers say will lead to “significant policy changes and protections for youth detained and in the custody of the county.”
Uniece “Niecey” Fennell was found dead in a jail cell on March 23, 2017. An autopsy later determined she had committed suicide by hanging, and a state audit found guards had not placed her on suicide watch per proper protocol and hadn’t checked on the teen as often as required.
According to a memorandum of agreement, the settlement was reached March 8, prior to legal action being filed. Claims against county officials will be released in exchange for a $650,000 payment from the county to Fennell’s family.
Among other things, the agreement stipulates that the sheriff’s office and county commissioners commit to removing “all known suicide hazards” from the jail by the end of this year. Sheriff Clarence Birkhead told the INDY last month that work to replace HVAC grates and beds that posed hanging risks was on track for completion around November.
“Losing a child is the most difficult thing I have ever experienced,” Julia Graves, Fennell’s mother, said in a statement. “It was important to our family that Durham change the way it treats children in its custody. It gives me some peace of mind to know that if this settlement is approved, children detained in the future will be treated more humanely. There is nothing that can take away the pain we still feel from losing Niecey. But there is comfort in knowing that part of her legacy will be making conditions safer for other children.”
Fennell was jailed on a murder charge in the summer of 2016, when she was sixteen years old. (Her family has said she was forced to go along on a drive-by shooting.) According to a complaint filed against the current and former sheriff as well as several corrections officers by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which represented her family, Fennell was “placed in close quarters with adult detainees” and “was a victim of regular bullying at the hands of both older detainees and one or more correctional officers.” Federal regulations say there should be “sight and sound” separation between adult and juvenile detainees.
As part of the settlement, county commissioners commit to studying an expansion of the Durham County Youth Home “or develop some reasonable alternative plan for total sight and sound separation between juveniles and adults” in the county jail.
The agreement also requires that detention officers undergo Crisis Intervention Training and Therapeutic Aggression Control Therapy, and that the county have a licensed clinical social worker on call to come to the detention facility. It stipulates that parents of youth in either the Durham County Youth Home or the county jail be alerted “within a reasonable time” if their child has a life-threatening medical condition, attempts suicide, or threatens self-harm.
“We appreciate all of the hard work on the part of Sheriff Birkhead and all parties involved that went into creating this settlement agreement,” said Ian Mance, an attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “It is now clear to all parties that it is unacceptable to house children and adults in the same spaces in detention facilities. We are optimistic that the settlement agreement can help us move forward with policies that make sense and protect children. It’s important to the family of Uniece Fennell that something positive comes from this tragedy.”