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Politics

Former jail insider: Sheriff created 'chaos' and undermined staff at the detention center

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Steve Harrison/WFAE
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Mecklenburg Sheriff Garry McFadden (left) promoted Jeff Eason to major in 2019. Eason said McFadden created "chaos" at the main detention center uptown.

The safety of Mecklenburg County’s main jail has become a big issue. In December, the state of North Carolina said staffing shortages were posing “an imminent threat to the safety of inmates and detention staff.” And it is the top topic in this month's Democratic primary for sheriff.

Now Jeff Eason, a retired major who Sheriff Garry McFadden promoted in 2019 to the second-highest post at the main detention center, said much of the jail's problems were the result of McFadden's management style.

WFAE reached out to Eason, who had worked for the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office for nearly 30 years and in the county’s two detention centers for more than 20 years, about his views on safety at the jail. Eason said that he said he quickly realized McFadden’s idea of how to run the jail was not going to work.

“He put in a very liberal way, liberal as in easy-going way, of being in DDU to the point where people wanted to go to DDU,” Eason said.

DDU — the Disciplinary Detention Unit — is similar to solitary confinement.

The previous Mecklenburg sheriff, Irwin Carmichael, had been criticized for keeping 16- and 17-year-olds in DDU, with the NAACP calling the practice torture.

His successor, McFadden, came into office in 2018 with a sweeping vision to make county jails more humane, joining a national movement for incarceration reform. For inmates in DDU, he allowed them to keep their commissary and personal items and, for a time, use electronic tablets.

Eason said McFadden’s changes went too far.

“We virtually gutted the legs that we had to stand on for any type of discipline because when folks want to go to the place we have designed them to not go to — there is a tool you have lost,” he said.

Instead of becoming more civilized, Eason said the jail became more violent.

“You had a lot more serious fights and by serious, I mean like inmates actually hurting each other with homemade weapons, more severe damage,” he said.

Eason remembers another attack in the fall of 2020.

“An inmate was on the phone and an officer told him it was time to get off the phone. The hallway officers come in to try and get him off the phone. (They) get one handcuff on him, he rolls around clocks the officer with the other end of the handcuff that’s loose,” Eason said.

Fraternal Order of Police: 'pure negligence by sheriff'

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Fraternal Order of Police took notice.

It sent a formal complaint to county leaders and state regulators in December 2021, detailing several assaults where inmates attacked officers with weapons. It wrote that “assaults on staff have dramatically increased" — and that the number of weapons used against them is “disturbing.”

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Fraternal Order of Police
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The FOP said assaults on staff "dramatically increased" under Garry McFadden.

The FOP’s complaint said the jail had become “vehemently unsafe for both inmates and staff due to inadequate staffing, and pure negligence by the Sheriff.”

The complaint included a photo of nine metal shanks the FOP said were found on one inmate.

In the last year of Carmichael's time as sheriff, there were 28 assaults on officers and 148 instances when inmates attacked one another.

In fiscal year 2021, which ended in July, there were 70 assaults on officers and 319 inmate attacks.

When asked about the violence and whether he would attribute the changes in DDU to a rise in fights, McFadden responded by asking, “Who says that? Where’s the documentation that says that?"

“We're in a culture that you have to understand. This is the culture of a correctional facility. This is not a daycare,” McFadden said.

In response to a question to about whether he does enough to keep detention officers safe, McFadden said: “Well, I think that's a question that you need to ask the entire country because of the great resignation across America. This is in every institution across America.”

McFadden said previous sheriffs treated people in a “barbaric” way. He said he changed that.

“We are talking about reentry, humanity, and giving people some of their rights,” he said.

And most criminal justice think tanks, both liberal and conservative, say that McFadden’s vision is right.

David Safavian — who was once incarcerated — is with the American Conservative Union’s Nolan Center for Justice.

“If you treat people like animals on the inside, how do you think they will act when they’ve paid their debt to society and they walk out that gate?” Safavian said.

Eason said McFadden may have a worthy goal, but a problem was McFadden’s execution. And he said the sheriff dismissed the input of people like himself who had worked at the jail for years, adding that the sheriff believed he could control the jail on his own.

Creating chaos

“His thing was he liked to go in and talk to people,” Eason said. “And that works to a point. But the one thing that was lost on him is that inmates — or residents as he likes to call them — will talk to the sheriff differently than they will talk to the floor sergeant or the captain or me as the major. They are more inclined to say what the sheriff wants to hear because you are the sheriff. I feel confident in saying that concept is lost on him.”

Eason said the sheriff would too often take inmates’ claims at face value without later conferring with his staff. And he said the sheriff would make it harder for detention officers to do their jobs by not recognizing their authority.

General housing pod officers have direct supervision of around 55 inmates. Eason said that even higher-ranking jail officials always ask a pod officer if they may enter as an acknowledgment of their authority.

He said McFadden ignored that.

“The sheriff comes in and undermines the authority of the officer and goes straight to a group of inmates, talks to them, laughing, cutting up,” Eason said. “Again, it’s perfectly within his right to do. But it doesn’t help anybody. It’s just a nightmare. Chaos is what it makes.”

One example, Eason said, was a text from McFadden on a Saturday in early 2020, telling him to move an inmate from one pod to another. Eason said McFadden didn't realize the inmate wanted to be in the same housing pod as his cousin. He said detention officers have worked to keep the two men apart.

“So Monday morning when we came in and we were able to rectify that and realize basically the sheriff had gotten played,” Eason said.

McFadden said he doesn’t remember that incident. He said conversations with inmates are valuable to monitoring the jail and he rejects the claim that he undermined his staff.

“I walk into the pod and walk around and what I do all the time is just document (what’s going on),” McFadden said. “That's all I'm doing. So, no, it's not that. And no, I wouldn't ignore the officer, I always speak to the officers, but they're nervous because the culture prior to that you didn't speak to the sheriff.”

Detention officers quit

Eason said COVID-19 contributed to the staffing shortage. But the biggest problem, he said, was officers didn’t feel safe.

“A lot of folks didn’t talk to me before they quit,” he said. “I would come in the next day and they would be gone. A lot of people who leave on shift, they would leave the keys on the sergeant’s desk and say, 'I’m not coming back, I can’t do this.' Some people would just leave and not come back at all and not say anything.”

In September, a Use of Force report from the jail said inmates surrounded the officer’s podium and used mattresses as shields. The jail put out a call for all officers to help — including sheriff's road deputies. They charged the inmates with pepper spray. A fight ensued and an inmate suffered a laceration to the side of his head requiring an ER visit.

A state inspection of the jail completed in February found that the shift was down to 51 officers, while a full shift is 80. That report found several instances when fights broke out when shifts were significantly short-staffed.

In the past, shifts were rarely that under-manned. Officers working overtime made up for any absences, said a former chief over the jail, Mike Plummer.

Eason recalls a meeting with supervisors and McFadden in April 2020.

He said he and others told McFadden that “we’re tired of being short-handed, we’re tired of being short-staffed. Whatever the reason, we need help.”

Eason said he had documented the staffing shortage in weekly reports. McFadden was defensive, he said.

“The first thing he said to me was, ‘Major did you tell me that you are short-staffed? I’ve never heard you were short-staffed. This is the first time I have heard of this. Why has no one ever told me about this?’ ” Eason said.

Eason said he told the sheriff: “I said, ‘Yes sir, every Monday morning I send you a report explaining exactly how many vacancies I have, how many people are out due to COVID, just normal sick leave, vacation, training, whatever.’ ”

Eason said McFadden then implied he should have done more.

“He asked me: ‘Did you use the word short?’ I said, ‘No sir, I did not. I gave you a breakdown of the vacancies. I didn’t think I needed to use that actual word short.’ And that educated me real quick on his thought process.”

There were so many vacancies by December 2021 that the state told the sheriff’s office it needed to transfer inmates and get its population down to fewer than 1,000. It was at 1,400.

Who is responsible for the jail?

In an interview after a recent sheriff's debate, McFadden talked about staffing shortages at the jail. He wanted to know whether Eason indicated who was responsible for the lack of staff.

“Did he say whose problem is that — the short-staffing?” McFadden asked.

The sheriff continued, “Who is over the detention center?”

When told that McFadden is ultimately in charge of the detention center, McFadden continued to talk about Eason.

“Well, what is Major Eason's role?” McFadden said. “What is his role as a major?”

McFadden said he couldn’t trust Eason to make the changes he wanted because he was part of what he called the “Good Old Boy Syndrome” that used to run the sheriff’s office.

“We do have a lot of undermining going on here with our staff because of the previous administration who believes that they still run this detention center,” McFadden said.

McFadden is in his first term as sheriff. He defeated Irwin Carmichael in 2018.

McFadden said he created a unit to search for weapons and that the jail is less violent. And he points to the department being re-accredited by the American Correctional Association with a score of 99%. That score reflects practices to ensure staff and inmate safety. And both the FOP and Southern States Police Benevolent Association have said they have heard officers feel safer recently.

McFadden said there “has not been a serious assault or a violent assault since November 2, 2021.”

However, incident reports since then show inmates have punched officers in the face and hit them with handcuffs.

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