Durham County must ensure “sight and sound” separation between adults and juveniles in the county jail following a court order endorsing a settlement between county officials and the family of a teen who died in the jail in 2017.

U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder endorsed the agreement between county officials and the family of Uniece “Niecey” Fennell, making it binding and enforceable.

Fennel was jailed in 2016 after being charged with the murder of a nineteen-year-old, though her friends say she wasn’t the killer but was instead threatened and forced to go on a drive-by shooting.

The agreement stipulates that the county and Sheriff’s Office must:

  • Implement a plan for “total sight and sound separation between juveniles and adults in Durham County” detention facilities. According to a complaint filed by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice on the family’s behalf, Fennell was held in close quarters with adults, despite federal regulations that say there should be sight and sound separation between adults and juveniles. Attorneys representing Fennell’s family says she was bullied “at the hands of both older detainees and one or more correctional officers.”
  • Issue a formal policy prioritizing space in the Durham County Youth Home for Durham County juveniles over juveniles from other jurisdictions. In light of the Raise the Age law that takes effect later this year, diverting more teens to the juvenile court system, county commissioners are already looking at what modifications need to be made to the Youth Home to accommodate more people.
  • Ensure all current officers at the DCDF undergo Crisis Intervention Training by December 2021.
  • Ensure that at least one supervisory officer who has undergone Therapeutic Aggression Control Techniques training is present at the facility.
  • Employ a Licensed Clinical Social Worker to consult with a psychiatrist who is on call 24/7.
  • Ensure that parents and/or guardians of any unemancipated juvenile in Durham County custody are alerted “within a reasonable time” to life-threatening medical conditions, suicide attempts or threats of self-harm.
  • Pay Fennell’s mother $650,000.

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 followed protocol and placed her on suicide watch and hadn’t checked on the teen as often as required.

The agreement, reached in March, had also stipulated that “all known suicide hazards” be removed from the jail. This work is underway and Sheriff Clarence Birkhead has said it will be complete around November.

“This agreement, and Judge Schroeder’s subsequent order, addresses a number of issues that contributed to Uniece’s tragic death,” said Ian Mance, staff attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “Many of them, including the hanging hazards in the cells, the commingling of juveniles and adults, and the inadequacy of mental health care, have been known by officials for years but had not been addressed.  A federal court has now assumed jurisdiction over the matter, and people in Durham should have confidence that the commitments from the Sheriff and the County will be implemented.”

If the county or the sheriff’s office fails to comply with the order, and mediation is unsuccessful, SCSJ can move to enforce the agreement in federal court.