Mecklenburg jail faces ‘urgent crisis’ after four inmates die, advocates say

Lavarchio Brenyon Allen was one of four Mecklenburg County Jail inmates to die over the past two months.
Lavarchio Brenyon Allen was one of four Mecklenburg County Jail inmates to die over the past two months.

After a Mecklenburg County Jail inmate died Thursday — the fourth to die in two months — prisoner advocates and families of the deceased are calling for reform.

Jerome Thompson, 52, jumped from the second floor of a general housing pod Wednesday around 10:30 p.m., the sheriff’s office said in a news release. He suffered a fractured skull and was taken to a hospital for surgery, officials said.

Thompson, in jail on charges of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon, died the next morning.

“The most basic duty of jail officials is to keep people who are in custody and awaiting trial safe and alive. At that, Mecklenburg County is failing,” said Susanna Birdsong, Senior Policy Counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina. “The deaths of four people in two months is a clear pattern and an urgent crisis that requires full and immediate intervention from the State Bureau of Investigation.”

Elizabeth Forbes, who heads the criminal justice reform group NC CURE, said she, too, is disturbed by the number of recent deaths inside the Mecklenburg jail.

The jail, which currently houses about 1,500 inmates, registered one death a year from 2014 through 2017, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. That number has jumped to four this year.

“Those statistics are extremely high,” Forbes said. “Why? ... I’m absolutely convinced a review of these deaths should by done by an outside agency.”

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department investigates deaths at the jail and all in-custody deaths are reported to the state, said Anjanette Grube, spokeswoman for Mecklenburg County.

She said detention officers are trained to assess and respond to individuals with mental illnesses.

Barbara Allen, whose son died in the jail last week, said her son suffered from bipolar disorder.

Lavarchio Allen called family members from the jail on July 4, wishing them a happy holiday, Allen said. He died the next morning. Allen’s cause of death is undetermined.

“Regardless of what he did and what he was, he was a human being,” Allen said. “He was a son. He was a father.”

Allen, records show, was in jail on charges of breaking-and-entering and larceny.

Jamarcus McIlwaine, 34, died at the jail in June. His death came a day after he was arrested on drug charges.

Jerome Thompson

Jamarcus McIlwaine

Kenneth Bigham, 39, died by suicide in May, according to a state report. Bigham was being held in the jail’s disciplinary detention unit and had been charged with assault and drug offenses, among other charges. The disciplinary detention unit is a type of solitary confinement. Research has found that solitary can cause and worsen mental illness.

Kenneth Bigham

From 2013 to 2016, suicide was the leading cause of death in North Carolina’s jails, according to a report released last year by Disability Rights North Carolina, a nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities. During that time, 51 of the 111 jail deaths — 46 percent — were the result of suicide, the study found.

The report called on every jail to adopt a suicide prevention program, hire adequate mental health staff and end the use of solitary confinement.

Susan Pollitt, an attorney for Disability Rights, called the number of recent deaths at the Mecklenburg jail “alarming.”

“We hope that the jail administration calls on an outside expert to assess their system and make recommendations to ensure the safety of the inmates,” Pollitt wrote in an email to the Observer.

Grube said sheriff’s office and jail staff prevented 21 jail suicides in 2017. So far this year, staff members prevented six, she said.

Garry McFadden, a former police detective who appears poised to become Mecklenburg’s next sheriff, said he wants to ensure such deaths are thoroughly investigated. “And we need to look at what steps could be taken to prevent any of these deaths,” he said.

McFadden said he is hearing concerns about the quality of mental health care provided to the county’s inmates, and that he wants to explore those.

Thompson was at least the second North Carolina jail inmate killed after jumping from a second tier. In March, Robin Thomason leaped to his death in the Forsyth County Jail, records show. He had a history of suicide attempts, according to his autopsy report.

Off: 704-358-6038
Smith: @LaVendrickS
Alexander: 704-358-5060; @amesalex