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NC Disability Rights sues DHHS over jail wait times for mental health care

Cleveland County
Devonte Watson was held in Cleveland County jail for 600 days before he got a bed in a state psychiatric hospital.

North Carolina Disability Rights sued North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services Thursday in federal court, saying that long waits for mental health care violate the civil rights of incarcerated people.

Devonte Watson was incarcerated in 2022 for assaulting a law enforcement officer, but a court found he doesn’t have the mental capacity to assist in his defense.

While state law requires him to get care so his case can move forward, he was held in a Cleveland County jail for 600 days before he got a bed in a state psychiatric hospital.

North Carolina Disability Rights said long waits violate the civil rights of those with mental illness. The suit also alleges the long waits violate the Americans for Disability Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

Watson’s story was part of a WFAE series, “Fractured,” about long waits for mental health care in jails and prisons.

The complaint says part of the problem is that North Carolina doesn’t have enough available beds. It says that, since 2022, defendants with mental disabilities wait an average of nearly five months to be placed at any of the state’s three psychiatric hospitals.

DHHS says the current wait time for a bed is 159 days, which is just over five months. And it’s said it’s working to reduce waits by allowing some defendants to get their mental capacity restored while still in jail.

A ten-person in-jail restoration unit is already up and running in the Mecklenburg jail, and the state says another unit will soon start operation in Wake County.

The ACLU joined the lawsuit, asking a federal court to make the state come up with a plan to reduce wait times.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.