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Where the Mecklenburg jail is on fixing problems the state says pose an 'imminent threat'

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A lot of pressure has been on the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office the past few months. In December, state regulators found staffing shortages at the jail uptown were posing “an imminent threat” to the safety of inmates and detention staff. They gave the sheriff a deadline to submit a plan to correct problems. It was approved last week. WFAE’s Lisa Worf joined "All Things Considered" host Gwendolyn Glenn to discuss where things stand.

Gwendolyn Glenn: So, Lisa, first, remind us of the extent of the problems at the jail? 

Lisa Worf: Yes, the jail was and still is significantly short-staffed. An inspector linked that to instances of violence, noting that several shifts where inmates assaulted staff were down two dozen people or so. A fully staffed shift would be 80. The report found there were a total of 454 incidents through most of last year, and that many of the incidents were considered serious — assaults on staff with weapons, fights among inmates and searches that turned up homemade weapons.

Glenn: So what’s Sheriff Garry McFadden’s plan to improve safety at the jail and how’s it working?

Worf: A big part of it is to move inmates out of the jail. The state inspector suggested keeping fewer than 1,000 inmates until staffing levels increase. At the time of inspection in December, it was just over 1,400. As of this Monday, it’s at about 1,200.

Glenn: Is the jail out of compliance? 

Worf: No. It was a recommendation, and the state did accept the sheriff’s plan. That means an inspector will return to the jail as part of the state's regular twice-a-year checks to verify changes are working. That is unless, as the department of health and human services phrases it, “circumstances indicate the need for an investigation sooner.”

Glenn: Tell us how the sheriff was able to bring down inmate numbers.

Worf: The sheriff asked other jails in the state to take some of the inmates. At least 20 inmates were transferred that way. But a big chunk of the jail population are those detained on federal charges. In December, there were 408 federal detainees, according to the sheriff’s office plan of correction. The Charlotte Observer first reported last month that the U.S marshal was relocating a portion of them to Irwin County Detention Center in south Georgia. That’s almost a six-hour drive away from the court many of them have to appear in and from their lawyers. As of Monday, there were 269 federal detainees in the jail uptown.

Glenn: And Lisa, I understand there’s a lot of money that follows those federal detainees.

Worf: Yes, there is. The sheriff’s office receives $160 a day for each federal detainee. The loss of 139 inmates amounts to a loss of about $22,000 a day — or about $8 million a year. On top of that, the sheriff’s office is no longer transporting the federal detainees it does have to and from the courthouse and to medical facilities so that officers that performed those duties could be reallocated back to the jail. Now, it’s unclear what kind of financial impact this all has on the jail.

Glenn: So what has been Sheriff McFadden’s response been to these problems? What’s he saying?

Worf: As far as the short staffing, he says jails have always struggled to find and keep employees, and that coupled with a pandemic and a nationwide labor shortage, that’s only worsened things. Here he is speaking at a county commission meeting last month.

Garry McFadden (recording): We’re not robots. We’re human, too. We get tired. We get burned out. One week, I had five staff members to lose family members.

Glenn: What efforts has McFadden made to increase staff? 

Worf: Right now, 300 detention officers work at the jail uptown. Fully staffed, it would be 470. Last month, the sheriff’s office said 14 people were in training. The starting salary is $52,530 with hiring bonuses. To provide help right away, the sheriff’s office and the county are contracting with a private security firm. Twenty-seven security guards are now helping to staff the county courthouse, the sheriff’s headquarters, the administrative services building and the lobby of the jail. WCNC obtained the contract in February. It puts the cost at nearly $27 an hour for a guard. There’s also a new mandatory overtime policy.

Glenn: Are these changes paying off? Is it too early to tell?

Worf: It’s hard to tell. In the sheriff’s plan submitted to state regulators on March 1, it says assaults on staff were down in the first months of this year compared to December and that fewer weapons were recovered from inmates. However, one of the big problems cited by the state inspector in December was that officers weren’t doing the twice-an-hour checks on inmates the state mandates. They often skipped hours or only checked once an hour. That was the case on March 2, the day when an inmate named Francine Laney died. She was in the medical unit. The sheriff’s office is required to submit another plan of correction to the state on that by April 27.

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Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.