Mother of teen who died in Durham County jail to receive $650,000 in settlement

Policy changes follow suicide death of Uniece Fennell

Durham jail administrator Col. Anthony Prignano explains policy changes after an investigation found deficiencies in the supervision of inmate Uniece Fennell, 17, who hanged herself in March.
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Durham jail administrator Col. Anthony Prignano explains policy changes after an investigation found deficiencies in the supervision of inmate Uniece Fennell, 17, who hanged herself in March.

The mother of a Durham teen who killed herself at the Durham County jail will receive $650,000 from Durham County, according to a preliminary settlement agreement.

The settlement also calls for removing suicide hazards at the jail by the end of 2019 and an end to housing young people under 18 with adults in the jail, according to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which represents Uniece Fennell’s family.

Fennell, 17, died in the early morning hours of March 23, 2017. Her death was ruled a suicide by the state Office of the Medical Examiner after she used a sheet to hang herself on a bar over a window in her cell.

The settlement resolves a lawsuit filed over the county placing Fennell with adults in a jail with with suicide hazards the county knew about for two decades, according to public records.

The county failed to fully fix window bars and ventilation grates that 12 people used to hang themselves from 1998 to 2017, The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun reported in June 2018.

family photo
Uniece “Niecey” Fennell was found hanging in her cell in the Durham County jail. Courtesy of the family

Fennell had been in the jail since July 2016 on a murder charge and was regularly bullied by other inmates and corrections officers, the lawsuit states..

Police said Fennell was involved in a drive-by shooting. Her mother, Julia Graves, said the teenager was driving the car but didn’t know the shooting was going to happen..

Murder charges against Fennell’s two co-defendants were dropped about eight months after her death due to a lack of evidence, according to court documents.

The family negotiated the settlement with Durham County and the Durham County Sheriff’s Office.

“Losing a child is the most difficult thing I have ever experienced,” Graves said in a statement. “It was important to our family that Durham change the way it treats children in its custody. It gives me some peace of mind to know that if this settlement is approved, children detained in the future will be treated more humanely.:

“There is nothing that can take away the pain we still feel from losing Niecey,” she continued. “But there is comfort in knowing that part of her legacy will be making conditions safer for other children.”

The lawsuit and settlement agreement, which were filed with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, are awaiting the court’s approval.

“We appreciate all of the hard work on the part of Sheriff [Clarence] Birkhead and all parties involved that went into creating this settlement agreement,” attorney Ian Mance of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice said in a statement. “It is now clear to all parties that it is unacceptable to house children and adults in the same spaces in detention facilities. We are optimistic that the settlement agreement can help us move forward with policies that make sense and protect children..”

Minimum checks missed

In the hours before Fennell was found hanging in her cell, 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 found, The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun have reported.

State regulations require inmates to be checked at least twice an hour. The state Department of Health and Human Services’ review found that wasn’t happening for a roughly 31-hour period around the time of Fennell’s death.

The rounds, which are recorded electronically, showed two separate hours during those 31 hours when 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.

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.

Graves told The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer in 2017 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, Graves said.

“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.”

Not on suicide watch

At 2:48 a.m., Fennell was found hanging from a bed sheet attached to a bar in a cell window, according to the Sheriff’s Office initial report to DHHS. The report said 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 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.

In a 2017 interview, Durham County jail administrator Col. Anthony Prignano told The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer he had 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.

Durham County jail administrator Col. Anthony Prignano talks about improving inmate supervision and his concerns for Uniece Fennell's family.

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