Crime & Courts

Five days after going to Charlotte's jail, he was dead. Police are investigating.

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A man died by suicide in the Mecklenburg County Jail on Sunday night, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office said Monday.

Kenneth Wayne Bigham was 39, and he was being held at the county's central jail in the disciplinary detention unit, according to the sheriff's office.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police and the sheriff's office are investigating his death.

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The disciplinary detention unit is a type of solitary confinement. Confinement there generally follows a disciplinary hearing, the jail handbook said.

Karen Simon, who in 2016 retired from her position as director of inmate programs for the Mecklenburg jails, said that when she worked there, adult inmates in the disciplinary detention unit were confined to their cells for 23 hours a day. Detention officers were supposed to check on the inmates every 15 minutes, she said.

They were allowed no visitors, phone calls or books, with the exception of religious material, Simon said.

Many of the inmates confined to the unit suffered from mental illness, she said.

"If you have a mental illness, you can't comply with jail rules," Simon said. "So you'll almost inevitably wind up in the DDU, which often makes the mental illness worse."

It's solitary confinement, Simon said. Research has found that solitary can cause and worsen mental illness.

Bigham has a Rock Hill address, according to the jail's website. He had been charged with drug trafficking, shoplifting, assault on a female and possession of a firearm by a felon, among other charges.

He was booked into the jail late Tuesday or early Wednesday and died days later, according to the jail's website and a jail spokesperson.

"This tragedy is a terrible reminder that solitary confinement is a cruel and ineffective practice with devastating consequences," Mike Meno, a spokesman for the N.C. ACLU, said in an emailed statement. "North Carolina should abandon this barbaric practice altogether. Officials must investigate the Mecklenburg County jail to determine why Mr. Bigham was left unsupervised, and how to prevent such an avoidable tragedy from ever happening again."

Bigham went to prison in South Carolina following a 2012 shoplifting conviction, and he served earlier sentences for resisting an officer and conspiracy, according to public records.

In North Carolina, he was convicted of assault on a female in 2000, according to public records.

Former CMPD detective Garry McFadden, who has won the race to become Mecklenburg's next sheriff, has said he would like to do away with solitary confinement in the county.

McFadden won last week's Democratic primary and faces no opposition in the fall election.

But for the time being, solitary confinement continues in Mecklenburg, with youths as young as 16 held in their cells for 23 hours a day. Like the adults held in the disciplinary detention unit, the youthful offenders spend all but one hour each day alone in 70-square-foot concrete cells, with no access to visitors, phones or library books, a 2016 Observer story reported.

Jane Wester: 704-358-5128, @janewester
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