Crime

Teen hanged herself in her jail cell. Attorney says Durham County ignored hazard.

Julia Graves, (center) the mother of Uniece “Niecey” Fennell, attended a Durham County public hearing Monday, June 11, where her attorneys Ian Mance (right) and Whitley Carpenter (left) called on County Commissioners to fund jail improvements to ensure the safety of children charged as adults.
Julia Graves, (center) the mother of Uniece “Niecey” Fennell, attended a Durham County public hearing Monday, June 11, where her attorneys Ian Mance (right) and Whitley Carpenter (left) called on County Commissioners to fund jail improvements to ensure the safety of children charged as adults.

An attorney who represents the mother a Durham teen found dead, hanging in her cell in the Durham County jail last year, complained Monday that the county's proposed budget does not address "longstanding safety issues" at the facility.

Ian Mance, of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, represents Julia Graves, the mother of Uniece Fennell, the 17-year-old who died in the early morning hours of March 23, 2017. He said the county knew of the hanging risk at the jail 15 years before Fennell's death.

"In 2002, Sheriff Worth Hill circulated a memorandum warning of hanging hazards that existed in the window bars, citing four deaths that had occurred over the prior six years," Mance said. "Following those warnings, this commission took no action and chose not to spend the modest sum of money, less than $100,000, that it would have taken to address the issue."

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At the time of her death, 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.

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

Detectives called to “an apparent suicide” at 3:30 a.m. found Fennell unresponsive and paramedics pronounced her dead,

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

Mance spoke during a Durham County public hearing on the county's spending proposal for the 2018-19-fiscal year. County commissioners did not respond to remarks.

Mance, who was joined by Graves and Whitley Carpenter, a staff attorney with the coalition, said Hill asked again in 2003 for money to make needed structural corrections at the jail, but the commissioners took no action.

"We have had far too many hanging deaths in the facility since it opened in 1996 and countless attempts," Mance said. "Recently, the Sheriff [Mike Andrews] finally made some changes designed to mitigate the hanging risk, but the fact remains it took more than 20 years for action to be taken."

Tarshella Fountain shares at a protest in front of the Durham County jail Friday, March 31, 2017 why she and others have questions about the Sheriff’s Office contention that Uniece Glenae “Niecey” Fennell committed suicide in her jail cell on Marc

Other jail concerns

There are other outstanding safety issues at the jail, Mance told commissioners.

He noted that in 2003, the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act set standards that prohibit children under 18 from being housed or coming in contact with adults in detention.

Carpenter added that more than a decade later, Durham County has not met those standards.

"Children as young as 16 years old are still placed in dangerous housing situations that they are not in any way prepared to handle," Carpenter said. "This practice actively endangers the life of every child in custody."

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.

Carpenter said children charged as adults need to have their own space or facility to ensure their safety. By 2020, she said North Carolina will end the practice of intermingling children and adults, but will not build or modify facilities for children.

"If this commission fails to make this issue a priority, the result will be that children like Niecy [Fennell] will be shipped out of Durham County to state facilities where it will be difficult, if not impossible for their parents and loved ones to visit them and provide them with the support they need during the most difficult times in their live," Carpenter said.

She said commissioners must also look at the quality of medical and psychiatric care provided children at the jail.

"There have been far too many deaths in this facility, and a common thread seems to be inadequate risk assessment at intake and inadequate monitoring of people in order to identify and intervene with respect to serious medical and psychiatric conditions," Carpenter said.

A state investigation into Fennell's death found that detention officers failed to check her regularly and did not report a tip from another inmate that she was a threat to herself.

After that report was released, Durham's jail director said he put in place new policies to make sure detention officers are watching inmates in accordance with state regulations. The new policies prohibit officers from deciding on their own whether an inmate should be on suicide watch.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645
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