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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

We reveal ourselves in how we treat others, even when it's complicated

The Mecklenburg County Jail has had repeated issues in doing state-mandated safety checks — checks that can keep jails more orderly and sometimes save lives. WFAE’s Tommy Tomlinson, in his On My Mind commentary, wonders if we think the safety of prisoners is just not that important.

The thing about real wisdom is that acting on it often requires us do hard things. Here’s some real wisdom:

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“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

That’s the New Testament, Matthew 25, verse 40.

When we think about helping “the least of these” — or, to put it another way, the people we tend to look down on the most — prisoners often go to the back of the line.

Even some of us who consider ourselves progressive have a hard time finding sympathy for convicted criminals, or even those in jail awaiting trial. I confess that I’m one of those people.

And then I hear a story like the one of a 17-year-old with the initials D.W.

My colleague Lisa Worf reported on the story for WFAE. Two years ago, D.W. was being held in the Mecklenburg Juvenile Detention Center. He was on suicide watch. That meant a jailer was supposed to check on him every 10 minutes by looking into his cell.

Surveillance video shows that an officer walked by the cell three times in the span of 24 minutes, but looked inside just once. It was 13 minutes before the officer came by again. By that time, D.W. had hung himself with a bedsheet attached to a metal grate in the ceiling.

Eight inmates have died in the main Mecklenburg jail over the past 15 months. A state review shows that in at least five of those deaths, officers failed to do multiple safety checks.

The jail is understaffed, of course, like the rest of the world seems to be understaffed these days. Mecklenburg is so short on jail officers that they had to farm out more than 100 federal prisoners they were holding.

The county is spending money to hire more staff and keep the people they’ve got. So far it’s clearly not enough. A jail is never going to be a completely safe place. But we owe it to everyone inside — prisoners and guards alike — to make it as safe as possible.

Sheriff Garry McFadden said the problem with safety checks is just that officers are late on their rounds, and he made an interesting analogy. Here’s what he said: “Domino's Pizza say they will deliver any pizza in 30 minutes. Is it a deficiency of them coming in 40 minutes? Yes. Was the pizza delivered? Yes.”

I sure hope he didn’t intend to compare a cold pizza to a teenager hanging in a jail cell. But that’s how it comes off.

Either way, we do a damn poor job caring for what Jesus called “the least of our brothers and sisters.” And no matter who’s in charge, the stain is on all of us.


Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.