When Jean Carolyn McGirt died in the Durham County jail nearly six months ago, her family wondered how that could happen in a medical unit with detention officers and nurses often present.
“I want answers,” her son Timothy McGirt told The Herald-Sun shortly after her Aug. 25 death. “Why was she unattended? Why wasn’t y’all always checking on her?”
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Durham jail officials say they had been checking on McGirt, 56, a mother of five, as state regulations require. But records of a state investigation into her supervision obtained by The News & Observer found a lack of documented checks in that area the day of her death. The jail has responded by increasing the checks, and with plans to electronically document them in the unit as they do elsewhere in the facility.
“Security tours in this area have been increased from twice an hour to three times an hour,” then-Sheriff Mike Andrews reported to state officials.
McGirt is one of 44 inmates across the state last year who died in county jails or in hospitals after becoming infirm behind bars. That’s the highest number of deaths since the state began tracking them in 1997. McGirt is among nine in 2018 who state investigators with the Department of Health and Human Services said were not properly supervised.
The DHHS investigation found that detention officers had properly checked on McGirt in the hour she was found unresponsive. But the investigation found that five hours earlier that day no checks had been documented for the 11 a.m. hour, and only one check was documented for the 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. hours after McGirt had died.
In a November response to the state report, the Sheriff’s Office wrote that deputies maintained two logbooks for the area and were conducting their tours twice an hour as required, but didn’t record the rounds.
“No intentional neglect noted,” the response states.
In an email, Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman AnnMarie Breen wrote that a detention officer can be seen on camera in the medical area hall making rounds, but the camera was not positioned to see the officer visually check each cell. Breen also pointed out that the deputy checks are in addition to any actions that jail health-care staff take.
The Sheriff’s Office also plans to install a system that allows guards to use an electronic wand to record the rounds. The system, which will cost $12,000 to install, is used in other parts of the jail.
“A completion date for this project is not available at this time,” Breen wrote.
Durham’s jail has had nine deaths since 2012, when the state began investigating for supervision issues, state death records show. The state has found supervision deficiencies in four of those deaths. Jail deaths were an issue in last year’s sheriff’s race, in which incumbent Mike Andrews lost to challenger Clarence Birkhead.
Birkhead, who ran on promises of jail improvements, has said he plans to evaluate jail policies and risks and present his finding to Durham County commissioners, who approve the Sheriff’s Office funding.
The state has a law that allows for a misdemeanor in cases of negligence, but DHHS officials say they are unaware that it’s ever been used. Otherwise, DHHS officials can do little more than recommend to the DHHS secretary that a jail should be closed, an outcome that would create significant logistical challenges.
Timothy McGirt couldn’t be reached for comment on the DHHS investigation. Another one of Jean McGirt’s children, Betty McGirt, said the family is still waiting for answers on why she ended up in the medical unit and what caused her death.
McGirt’s body was taken to the State Medical Examiner’s Office to determine the cause of death. An autopsy hadn’t been released as of Wednesday.
The medical unit includes three exam rooms and six medical rooms with hospital beds, Breen wrote in an email.
On Aug. 30, The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer filed an official request for a copy of the jail’s health-care policies, annual reports and other documents provided to the county by Correct Care Solutions, the private company that provides health care services to the jail under a $3.1 million annual contract.
The request sought to get more information about how inmates in the medical unit are monitored by medical staff, staffing levels in the unit, under what circumstances and how often inmates are taken to the hospital, and how the jail monitors people who may be addicted to drugs when arrested.
The request was sent to Durham County and the Sheriff’s Office.
On Nov. 28, Bryan Wardell, a county attorney, refused to provide the information. Wardell pointed to an exclusion in the state’s open records law that protects company’s “trade secrets,” in the email. The email said Correct Care Solutions “deems all of those items to be proprietary and confidential,” Wardell wrote.
State law defines a trade secret as business or technical information, including, a method, process or compilation of information that has “a potential commercial value from not being generally known or readily ascertainable through independent development or reverse engineering by persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use” and “the subject of efforts that are reasonable under the circumstances to maintain its secrecy.”
Jonathan Jones, former director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition who recently moved into private law practice, said he finds it difficult to believe that a policy manual for care in a jail setting “would be the kind of thing that is truly a trade secret.”
He also questioned the county’s ruling on routine reports. “That is not a trade secret at all, and that should be public,” he said.
On Wednesday, Breen said the Sheriff’s Office, which is separate from the county, didn’t deem some of the health services reports as confidential and provided statistics on services.
In 2018, 472 inmates were housed in the medical unit, the information states. A total of 93 inmates visited an outside emergency room and 13 were admitted to a hospital.
Inmates submitted 1,310 medical care grievances last year. Thirty-one of those grievances were founded, the information states.
McGirt lived with her brother and his wife in a brick duplex across the street from McDougald Terrace, the city’s largest public housing complex. McGirt helped to take care of her sister-in-law as a home health-care aide, her family said in interviews last summer.
McGirt entered the jail under $30,000 secured bail at 3:10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 24, after police knocked on her brother’s door, searched the duplex and charged her with possession with intent to manufacture, sell and deliver heroin and other offenses. A search warrant indicates that a confidential source had bought heroin from McGirt in previous days.
Jerald Taylor, McGirt’s brother, was also arrested and charged with possession of marijuana.
Durham County court records indicate that McGirt has been the center of multiple investigations by Durham police over the past eight years. She has been convicted of two misdemeanors — a possession of drug paraphernalia and a resisting a public officer charge — during that time.
In 2014, McGirt was charged with felony possession and distribution drug charges that were dismissed six months later.
In the 1990s, McGirt was convicted of multiple felonies and misdemeanor drug charges and served about 20 years total in state prison, according to state records.
‘Bro, I love you’
McGirt was a mother to those who didn’t have one, friends and family say. She gave people and their pets a place to stay when they were homeless. She gave people who were hungry a home-cooked meal, they said.
“She even fed them food she really didn’t have to really give,” Timothy McGirt said in August.
After McGirt and Taylor were arrested, they were taken to police headquarters, where they stayed for about an hour, Taylor said in an interview in August.
Then they were taken to the jail and processed.
As Taylor was taken to his cell, McGirt he said looked back and said, “Sister, I love you.”
“She said, ‘Bro, I love you too,’” Taylor said.