This story originally published online at NC Policy Watch

More people died in North Carolina jails in 2020 from untreated medical conditions, suicide, or substance abuse-related causes than in any other year since 2013, when Disability Rights North Carolina began monitoring jail deaths.

Fifty-six people died in jails in 2020, up from 49 in 2019, according to a report the organization released Thursday. The in-custody deaths increased even as county jails were reducing their populations to curb the spread of COVID-19.

At least 21 people died by suicide while in jail in 2020, the report said, and 11 died from drug overdoses or withdrawal.

More than half of the 21 jail suicides occurred within a week of arrival, and 20 of the 21 were by hanging, the report said. Failures to properly monitor detainees, or prematurely removing them from suicide watch, contributed to some of those suicides, Disability Rights concluded.

Officers in North Carolina jails are supposed to check detainees twice an hour and step up those checks to four times an hour for detainees who are intoxicated, display unusual behavior, or are at risk of suicide. The Disability Rights report recounted instances where officers did not make the checks as required.

Of the deaths by suicide, five were cases where people had been taken off suicide watch, and 13 were where people had passed suicide risk screening.

Eleven people died in jail from forced withdrawal or drug overdoses that were often paired with other health conditions, the report said.

Disability Rights offered recommendations for reducing jail deaths.

  • Require jails to report suicide attempts and have the state Department of Health and Human Services check jails for compliance with suicide prevention measures after those attempts.
  • Add two inspectors and a compliance consultant to the staff of three within the state Division of Health Services Regulation responsible for inspecting each jail twice a year, responding to complaints, and conducting death investigations.
  • Improve suicide prevention programs.
  • Make sure incarcerated people receive adequate medical care.
  • Reduce the number of people with mental illnesses that end up in jail.

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