Durham County

Durham County jail inmate found dead in cell

Durham County Sheriff Michael Andrews is pictured at the Durham County Detention Facility in this April 2017 file photo.
Durham County Sheriff Michael Andrews is pictured at the Durham County Detention Facility in this April 2017 file photo. tlong@newsobserver.com

The Durham County Sheriff’s Office says a 40-year-old man died in the Durham County jail Sunday night.

The unnamed inmate was found unresponsive in his cell.

Preliminary findings suggest the inmate died of natural causes, according to the Sheriff’s Office, which was trying to notify his family.

Sheriff’s detectives are conducting a death investigation, which is standard practice.

In compliance with standard protocol, the Sheriff’s Office said it will notify the State Bureau of Investigation of the in-custody death and the State Medical Examiner will perform an autopsy to determine the official cause of death.

Under state law, county inmate deaths are required to be reported to N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. After receiving a death report, the Division of Health Service Regulation conducts a compliance investigation.

Since 2013, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has cited Durham in three jail deaths for leaving inmates unsupervised for longer than state regulations allow

▪ Terry Lee, 21, committed suicide in 2013. A DHHS investigation found Lee had a known history of mental illness and should have been observed four times an hour. The electronic record of detention officers’ rounds showed Lee went unobserved for nearly six hours the day he hanged himself, and had put a towel over his cell door window so no one could see what he was doing.

The Durham detention officer who was supposed to be checking on Lee was fired, a Durham jail official said.

▪ Matthew Lamont McCain, 29, died in jail in 2016 from a seizure disorder. A review of the electronic sensors showed a lack of required supervision. A detention officer was disciplined.

▪ In March, Uniece Fennell, 17, committed suicide after telling another inmate that she planned to harm herself. The state investigation found a jail official failed to take seriously a tip that the inmate was planning to harm herself. Fennell wasn’t checked at least twice an hour through much of the day leading up to her suicide, and was not put on suicide watch when a tip came roughly two hours before her death in the early morning of March 23.

The jail has added new policies to make sure checks are done and required any information suggesting inmates are threats to themselves be brought to the attention of supervisors and mental health staff, jail officials said.

The News & Observer staff reporter Dan Kane contributed to this report.