Teens behind bars with grownups at Durham jail. Why some say change must come sooner

N.C. Rep. Marcia Morey speaks in front of the Durham County Detention Center.
N.C. Rep. Marcia Morey speaks in front of the Durham County Detention Center.

Advocates gathered outside the Durham County jail Monday night to remember a teenager who killed herself in her cell and to stress the dangers of incarcerating young people and adults together.

According to national information they provided:

Roughly 80 percent of young people housed with adult inmates reported experiencing physical force or the threat of force.

Three in four 16- and 17-year-old who reported being sexually assaulted while incarcerated were victimized more than once by staff, and two in three of those reported being victimized more than once by other inmates.

Young inmates in adult prisons are 34 percent more likely of becoming recidivists than those in juvenile facilities.

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

Some speakers Monday were in town for the National Juvenile Justice Network’s 2018 Forum being held at Duke University. The forum is being co-hosted by the Youth Justice Project of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and Duke Children’s Law Clinic.

They focused on 17-year-old Niecey Fennell, who killed herself behind Durham County jail bars March 23, 2017. She was being held on $5 million bail in the shooting death of Andre Bond on July 10, 2016.

Shortly after her death, a Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman said Fennell had not been on suicide watch.

Members of the justice network’s board of directors said the organization brought its forum to Durham to help the county “do the right thing by” its children.

“We’re here to remember and celebrate the life of Niecey,” board member Ethan Ashley said. “The research is clear that young people should not be in adult prison. That is a fact – a fact, a fact.”

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12 young detainees

There are currently 12 detainees who are 16 or 17 years old in the Durham County jail, Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman AnnMarie Breen said Monday.

She was unable to say how many such teens were housed at the jail last year. Unlike older inmates who may sometimes be doubled up, 16- and 17-year-old detainees are housed in individual cells within a pod, with access to a dayroom and outdoor recreation area.

“They are in the general population, but do not share a cell with another detainee,” Breen said. “When detainees are locked down for the night there isn’t anyone else in the cell with them.”

Detainees who are 16 or 17 are monitored in the same manner as the rest of the population, she explained.

Last year state lawmakers became the last in the nation to vote to no longer automatically charge all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

However, the changes, which will apply to 16- and 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors and low-level felonies, will not take effect until December 2019.

Advocates want the county to create a separate space within the jail for younger detainees and/or find spaces in existing facilities in the county that are better suited to meet their needs.

Standing in front of the jail she helped put people in, N.C. Rep. Marcia Morey, a former Durham County judge for 18 years, said having the “injustice of our justice system” propelled her to join the legislature.

“When North Carolina was still the only state that prosecuted children under the age of 18 as adults, I decided I could no longer wear a robe and be silent. … So, I went to the General Assembly,” she said.

“We should never have a child in this building,” Morey said pointing to the austere, gray walls behind her.

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.

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

Staff writer Mark Schultz contributed to this story.

Colin Warren-Hicks: 919-419-6636, @CWarrenHicks