MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. — Newly obtained records reveal state inspectors recently flagged problems across emergency systems within the Mecklenburg County Detention Center's Jail Central.
An inspection report noted, among other things, problems with the jail's fire alarm system, an emergency generator, the sprinkler system (first noted by a vendor last March), a security camera and the fire firefighters' smoke control panel in the North Tower, which would be used to safely evacuate people in an emergency.
"It has been determined that this life safety code deficiency at your jail creates a condition that jeopardizes the safety of staff and inmates," inspectors said about the smoke control panel problems.
Kristie Puckett Williams, the ACLU of North Carolina's Statewide Campaign for Smart Justice manager, said the findings are a signal that "things are really bad."
"It really saddens me that things have deteriorated so much so that the Department of Health and Human Services is stepping in," she said. "We know, looking at history, it takes a lot for state agencies to step in inside of carceral spaces to make any changes. People have to be really, really, really in a dire situation."
The inspection followed a WCNC Charlotte investigation that identified a rise in violent attacks against guards and lack of consistent inmate supervision due to a staffing shortage. The Fraternal Order of Police filed a formal complaint with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services in December, requesting an investigation.
"People are just desperate to get out," Williams said, citing conversations with inmates, their families and detention officers. "Why are we still placing people at risk of being inside of that building? This is an indictment of the entire judicial system."
At the recommendation of inspectors, Sheriff Garry McFadden has started reducing the jail population. MCSO reports the agency has relocated 62 residents so far, bringing the current population to 1,314 residents as of Thursday.
With so few officers working, inspectors have heard concerns that they might not be able to safely evacuate the building in an emergency.
"Our thoughts and our prayers go out to (the inmates) and their families," Williams said. "I don't have a lot of words to describe how inhumane the conditions are."
She is worried about those inmates, already in jail during a pandemic, many of them awaiting trial.
"They're the ones, if the sprinkler system doesn't work, who are going to be burned alive in their cells or die from smoke inhalation, God forbid," Williams said. "There are pregnant people there inside the jail. There are people who recently had babies who need to be home nursing their babies inside of that jail there are people who recently had children that need to be there to parent and father their children.
"These are people in the state's eyes who are innocent, but because they are too poor to afford the bond that has been set, they sit there."
Sheriff's office administrators sent a formal response to the state Thursday morning, noting the broken camera is now fixed, generator repairs began this week, some of the fire panel problems are now repaired while others will take 60 to 120 days, the fire alarm work has begun and disputing any sprinkler system problems as documented in a March 2021 third-party inspection.
"MCSO has worked diligently to correct the deficiencies found during the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services' recent inspection of the Mecklenburg County Detention Center-Central (MCDCC)," the agency said in a statement. "A thorough plan of correction will be submitted to the Division of Health Service Regulation Construction Section by the designated deadline."
That deadline is Feb. 4, 2022.
The findings are the latest in a wide range of problems at the jail that the sheriff has said he's committed to addressing.
"We are in a crisis like everybody else in the United States, so we're doing as much as we can with the staff that we have," Sheriff McFadden told WCNC Charlotte in December.
He echoed those words in a Charlotte Observer letter to the editor earlier this week.
Contact Nate Morabito at email@example.com and follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Flashpoint is a weekly in-depth look at politics in Charlotte, North Carolina, South Carolina, and beyond with host Ben Thompson. Listen to the podcast weekly.
SUBSCRIBE: Apple Podcasts || Spotify || Stitcher || Google Podcasts
All of WCNC Charlotte's podcasts are free and available for both streaming and download. You can listen now on Android, iPhone, Amazon, and other internet-connected devices. Join us from North Carolina, South Carolina, or on the go anywhere.