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State report faults Durham jail in teen inmate’s suicide

In the hours before Uniece “Niecey” Fennell was found hanging in her cell at the Durham County jail, detention officers failed to check her regularly and did not report a tip from another inmate that she was a threat to herself, a state investigation has found.

Durham’s new jail director said after the investigation’s findings were released, in response to a public records request, that he has put in place new policies to make sure detention officers are watching inmates in accordance with state regulations. The new policies also prohibit officers from deciding on their own whether an inmate should be on suicide watch.

Fennell, 17, died in the early morning hours of March 23. Her death has been ruled a suicide by the state Office of the Medical Examiner. She had been in the jail since last July on a murder charge. Police said she was involved in a drive-by shooting.

State regulations require inmates be checked at a minimum twice an hour. The report by the state Department of Health and Human Services’ Construction Section reviewed detention officer rounds for a roughly 31-hour period surrounding the time of Fennell’s death and found that wasn’t happening.

The rounds, which are recorded electronically, showed two separate hours during those 31 hours in which no checks were documented, and four hours in which only one check was logged. In five other hour-long periods, it wasn’t clear that the rounds included a check of her cell.

Col. Anthony Prignano, who became the jail director in May, said in an interview the records show the checks were not done as required. He said disciplinary action has been taken, but he declined to say against whom. He said it did not involve firing, suspending or demoting an employee. All of those actions are public under the state personnel law.

“Not performing those rounds, those have been addressed,” Prignano said, “and those were disciplinary actions.”

A news release from the Durham County Sheriff’s Office at the time of Fennell’s death reported that proper checks had been made.

The state investigation also found that a detention officer responsible for checking on Fennell learned roughly two hours before she was found hanging that another inmate had reported she was talking about harming herself.

Julia Graves, Fennell’s mother, said in an interview on Wednesday that another inmate called her crying after Fennell died. He was in a cell above Fennell’s, and he was talking to her the morning she died. Inmates talk to each other through vents and toilet bowls, said Graves, 41, of Las Vegas.

“He told me that she was talking crazy. And that she was real emotional. He was like he had never heard her like that before,” Graves said. “And that she told him that she was going to hang herself.”

The inmate told Graves that he shared the information with the detention officer on his floor, and that officer called down and told a detention officer on Fennell’s floor. Fennell then reassured the detention officer on her floor that she wasn’t going to do anything, the inmate told Graves.

The state investigation found that the detention officer checked on Fennell more than twice during that 1 a.m. hour and saw her standing by the cell door. The detention officer reported after her death that Fennell had said she was “OK.”

At 2:48 a.m., Fennell was found hanging from a bed sheet that had been attached to a bar in a cell window, according to the Sheriff’s Office initial report to DHHS. The report said that she had been checked 30 minutes earlier, at 2:18 a.m.

State investigator Chris Wood said in his DHHS report that the circumstances warranted Fennell being on suicide watch, which calls for a minimum of four checks an hour. In that case, the officer would have been expected to check her at least one more time within that 30 minutes, between 2:18 and 2:48. Wood said the detention officer responsible for watching Fennell did not report the inmate’s tip to a supervisor or medical staff.

The state medical examiner’s initial inquiry into Fennell’s death said that she had repeatedly discussed harming herself.

“She had been making suicidal threats prior to completion stating that she ‘wanted to kill herself’ but no one took her threats seriously as she did not show signs of following through,” the report said.

Prignano said through a spokeswoman, Tamara Gibbs, that Fennell had been put on four-times-an-hour checks last year after her twin brother was killed in an unrelated shooting. This was despite mental health staff at the jail determining that she wasn’t suicidal, he said.

The checks ended on Nov. 3, two days after his death, and after she signed a document for mental health staff stating that she would not harm herself, Prignano said.

In the interview, Prignano said he has instituted a new requirement that detention officers report any information that inmates may seek to harm themselves to a supervisor. They will no longer be allowed to decide on their own to accept or reject that information.

“Our officers are not mental health professionals. We are trained, granted, to recognize some signs, but we are not mental health professionals,” Prignano said. “We must let the mental health professionals meet with these folks that had said certain things or were acting in certain ways to address whether or not they should or should not be on suicide prevention.”

An investigation into Fennell’s death by the State Bureau of Investigation has not been completed.

The day before Fennell died, her defense attorney, Alex Charns, said in a written complaint to jail officials that a detention officer had called Fennell a murderer. Durham officials said shortly after her death that detention officer had left two weeks earlier, so they could not confirm whether her complaint was true.

Durham Sheriff Mike Andrews continued to not identify the former detention officer, but reported in an email this week via Gibbs that the employee left for family reasons and had no record of suspensions or demotions.

Fennell was being held on $5 million bail in the shooting death of Andre Bond on July 10, 2016. Bond was found dead on Woodview Drive in what appeared to have been a drive-by attack.

Fennell had rented a car from an individual and had been at parties in hotel rooms with other people that night, Graves, her mother, said.

She picked up Joseph Kendell and Demonte Christopher, who were also charged in the murder, because she needed help paying the second half of the $80 required for the car rental, Graves said.

Fennell was driving home and someone in the car suggested she take a short cut.

“She got three or four houses down, and they just started shooting,” Graves said.

One of the casings burned Fennell’s leg, and she slammed on the brakes, Graves said Fennell told her. One of the men in the car put a gun to her head and told her to drive, Graves said her daughter told her.

Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols said he couldn’t comment on Fennell’s role in the Bond murder because the cases against Kendell and Christopher are ongoing.

In a March 6 court filing, a little more than two weeks before Fennell’s death, Charns asked for her bail to be lowered to $125,000, saying evidence showed she was the driver. Charns also said in the filing that Fennell was briefly housed in the same jail pod with the woman alleged to be her twin brother’s murderer. (Gibbs, the Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman, said that they were in the same pod for eight hours and had no contact.) A note in Fennell’s court file indicates the bail was lowered to $2 million later that day, but an official order wasn’t found in the file.

Regardless of the new information in the DHHS report, Graves said she still isn’t sure that her daughter killed herself.

“If you knew her like everybody that does know her, I just can’t believe that she killed herself,” Graves said.

Fennell was born in Lancaster, Calif., near Los Angeles. She and her twin brother were the youngest of five children. Their father died in his sleep in 2011, said Ian Mance, an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice who is representing Fennell’s family.

The family moved to Durham in 2014, and Fennell attended Jordan High School. Mance said she enjoyed making her own clothing and wrote songs and poetry.

“She had an outgoing and playful personality,” Mance said.

Graves doesn’t understand how her 5-foot, 4-inch daughter could reach the bar in a window that is 7 feet tall, she said. Investigators told her Fennell tied knots in a sheet and threw it up in the bars. But Graves doesn’t understand how that knot system could have held her 180-pound daughter.

Whether she killed herself or not, Graves said, someone should be held accountable.

“I feel that they failed to protect my daughter,” she said.

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