Woman found dead at Durham County jail loved dogs, ‘kept an eye on everybody’

Jean Carolyn McGirt died at the Durham County Detention Center on Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018.
Jean Carolyn McGirt died at the Durham County Detention Center on Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018. contributed photo

A woman found unresponsive at the Durham County jail Saturday died in the jail’s medical unit a little over 24 hours after entering the detention center, a spokeswoman said Monday.

“There is no indication of suicide at this point,” said AnneMarie Breen, a spokeswoman for the Durham County Sheriff’s Office. The jail does a health screening when people enter the jail, but the information is considered confidential under patient privacy rules, Breen said.

All people in the jail’s medical unit are under observation, and detention officers perform security checks on all inmates twice per hour, she said.

The woman, Jean Carolyn McGirt, entered the jail under $30,000 secured bail at 3:10 p.m. Friday after being charged with possession with intent to manufacture, sell and deliver heroin and other offenses. The Sheriff’s Office said she was 56; the state Department of Correction lists her age as 57.

At about 4 p.m. Saturday, the Sheriff’ Office said, McGirt was found unresponsive and jail staff, medical personnel and paramedics could not revive her. Her body was taken to the State Medical Examiner’s Office to determine the cause of death.

Under standard protocol, the Durham County Sheriff’s Office is conducting a death investigation and has notified the State Bureau of Investigation.

The findings of that investigation will be submitted to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Cared for neighbors

On Monday, a friend said McGirt, who went by Carolyn, was always on her front porch looking out for her neighbors and their dogs.

Lori Hensley, the director of operations for Beyond Fences, which works to provide housing and care for dogs when their owners cannot, said she saw McGirt about once a week when she was in the Wabash Street neighborhood near the McDougald Terrace public housing community.

“Carolyn is very people oriented,” Hensley said. “She always could tell me who needed to see me because their dog was sick or because they had gotten evicted.”

Hensley estimated she helped between 20 and 30 dogs over the past five years because of McGirt.

McGirt, who had a pitt bull mix named Gucci, also let people people and their dogs stay with her when they got evicted, Hensley said.

“She just kept an eye on everybody,” she said.

8 deaths in 5 years

McGirt was a convicted habitual felon with a total of 20 years and one month incarceration time on various drug sale and possession charges, according to the N.C. Department of Correction website.

The 20 years does not mean McGirt spent all that time incarcerated, as people get credit for time served in jail and also earn time in prison that can reduce their imprisonment, a spokesman said Monday.

McGirt’s death was the eighth at the jail since 2013.

As The Herald-Sun reported in May, jail deaths were an issue in the recent Democratic primary for sheriff, which incumbent Mike Andrews lost to challenger Clarence Birkhead.

Last fall after James Earl Staton Jr. was found unresponsive in his cell, about 30 people marched in the streets. Staton’s autopsy suggested he died of natural causes related to cardiac arrhythmia, or an irregular heartbeat, and a follow-up state investigation found no deficiencies in his supervision or any corrective action needed.

This past spring Dashawn Devonte Evans, who had been in jail since October 2017 and had recently pleaded guilty to federal robbery charges, was found unresponsive in his cell. An autopsy found Evans died of accidental heroin, fentanyl and acetyl fentanyl poisoning.

The others who died in custody during the last five years were:

▪ Terry Lee

▪ Dennis Edward McMurray

▪ Raphael Marquis Bennett

▪ Matthew Lamont McCain

▪ Uniece “Niecey” Fennell

In response to state concerns about jail procedures related to three of the deaths, the jail added protocols to ensure regular inmate checks and to require that any information suggesting inmates are threats to themselves be brought to the attention of supervisors and mental health staff.

Supervision issues

Last year, The News & Observer published a five-part series, Jailed to Death, that investigated inmate deaths in N.C. county jails.

About half of the 151 people who died in the past five years struggled with mental illness, substance abuse or both, state records showed. The series found roughly a third of the deaths involved supervision issues such as failing to check inmates as required, broken cameras or intercoms, or leaving items in cells that inmates could use to kill themselves.

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