'It's hard to change a culture': Sheriff says he inherited messy situation with inmates in Mecklenburg Co. jail
Records reveal stabbings, attacks and riots at jail central. The Fraternal Order of Police is now calling for an outside investigation.
"I would hate to hear that somebody came in with a smile and came out in a body bag."
"The inmates are the ones who are winning"
Detention officers say their concerns are being blown off by Sheriff Garry McFadden as excuses to "lay out" of work
"I would give myself a B"
Sheriff McFadden said he takes responsibility for what happens in the jail but said command staff bear some blame, too.
Open Door Policy
McFadden said he encourages officers who have a problem to approach him. If they don't, McFadden says he can't help.
Sheriff's lengthy statement
The people who work inside the Mecklenburg County Detention Center are in danger, left trying to fend off violent inmates at critically low staffing levels.
Confidential internal records obtained by WCNC Charlotte show inmates have stabbed, punched and rioted against detention officers, which MCSO classifies as disturbances, not riots since no one was hurt and no property was damaged, in the last three months alone.
The most recent attack occurred Thursday morning when an inmate cut a detention officer on the face. That jail resident will face criminal charges, according to the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office.
"I would hate to hear that somebody came in with a smile and came out in a body bag.":
A longtime detention officer called the conditions the worst he's ever had to work in.
"Unfortunately, somebody's either going to get seriously hurt or killed," the detention officer said. "I believe it's just a matter of time, the way things are going. I would hate to hear that somebody came in with a smile and came out in a body bag."
Afraid of retaliation, WCNC Charlotte agreed to hide the man's identity. The officer, who has worked under multiple sheriffs, described a potentially lethal combination: A lack of staffing that leaves guards without backup, inadequate punishment that enables inmates and a lack of support from the sheriff himself.
"Shifts keep getting shorter and shorter," he said. "Right now, there's nobody to respond. It doesn't feel likes there's any safety. We're inside suffering."
Records obtained by WCNC Charlotte identified almost 20 inmates who required elevated security in November because they've previously attacked employees. One of the worst documented attacks happened in October.
A female sergeant was stabbed "several times behind her ears" with a homemade shank, according to an incident report. Graphic photos of the woman's injuries show a wide gash in her neck.
"The inmates are the ones who are winning": Detention officers say their concerns are being blown off by Sheriff Garry McFadden as excuses to "lay out" of work
WCNC Charlotte confirmed at least five more attacks against staff since that October assault, including two in early December after a retiring officer wrote a parting email to the entire department.
"Unfortunately, it feels like no one has your back," the email said. "The inmates are the ones who are winning."
Photos, incident reports and emails detail assaults throughout the year, some never publicized. This includes several that occurred after another desperate detention officer sent emails to Sheriff Garry McFadden in September, warning him that "staff is dangerously low," concerns were "ignored," and employees are "tired and frustrated."
In his email responses, the sheriff blamed understaffing on employees reluctant to come to work because "it is easy to lay out," but said he would pass along her concerns to administrators.
"I understand your frustration and I understand that you are tired," the sheriff's reply said. "Believe it or not I am tired and I am frustrated because I come in very early in the morning and leave very late in the afternoon sometimes after 9 o'clock at night and then I'm on the phone until 11 or 12 o'clock putting out fires that I believe supervisors should be handling. Then I come in the next morning and it starts all over again and put out more fires that go on unattended because staff are tired .... We have a Lotta staff out some more out just to be out because the government give them that option."
Jail records show a more than 400% increase in attacks on officers at jail central in recent years from just 13 in the fiscal year 2019, 21 in 2020 and 68 in 2021. According to the department, there have been 35 assaults on officers so far this fiscal year.
Fraternal Order of Police Vice President Daniel Redford said employees — past and present — have all shared concerns with him.
"The response that we got was overwhelming," Redford said. "Just recently, there was one resident who they confiscated nine shanks out of. How does this happen? How does this continue to happen?"
The FOP emailed a complaint to county commissioners and state officials Thursday, citing unsafe conditions and calling for an outside investigation.
In the first few days of December alone, department emails show three inmates attacked three officers. In one of those cases, an incident report revealed an inmate grabbed a cup of unknown liquid in the janitor's closet and threw it at a detention officer and then hit him with his handcuffs.
"It really makes your heart drop," Redford said. "These assaults need to stop."
"I would give myself a B": Sheriff McFadden said he takes responsibility for what happens in the jail but said command staff bear some blame, too.
McFadden told WCNC Charlotte he takes responsibility for what takes place inside the jail but said his officers and command staff bear some of the blame too. He said he also adequately punishes the residents who attack employees.
"If you were to grade your performance protecting your employees, what would you give yourself?" WCNC Charlotte asked the sheriff.
"I would give myself a B," he responded. "We have to understand that I can do all I can to protect my employees, but my employees need to do all they can to protect themselves and their employees."
The sheriff didn't hold back his frustration that staff leaked confidential records, calling that a safety concern.
"Some of the employees I do not trust," he said.
McFadden said the reports only tell a partial story. He said in some of the attacks, officers violated department rules, which put them at risk.
"I'm frustrated that people are not following policies and procedures," he said.
McFadden said the conditions inside the detention center are a reflection of the violence outside, pandemic pressures and problems at home, not his leadership. The Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office reports 141 staffing vacancies currently at jail central.
"We're 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," the sheriff said. "There is no magic bullet. If we knew how to solve that then we wouldn't have the crisis in America with the gun violence. We wouldn't have the crisis in America with the schools, with the murders or the rapes."
The sheriff said he started improving safety a year ago and has since mandated overtime, moved juveniles out of the jail to free up extra detention officers and brought in additional employees from the courthouse, road and reserves. He said he is also moving forward with significant de-escalation training. In addition, he announced a more than $100,000 Peer Support Program grant that will offer "voluntary and confidential support and assistance to employees dealing with stress, emotional difficulties, or other personal and professional crises." He said the money will also be used for the psychological screenings and the required training for the personnel selected as MCSO Peer Support Team members.
"What more can you do?" WCNC Charlotte asked McFadden.
"What more can I do? Find the necessary people to work, help build better relationships between the staff and the residents," McFadden responded, blaming the culture inside on the past sheriff, who left office in December 2018.
"I inherited a culture that you are afraid to speak, you are afraid to work," he said.
"You've had three years to change that." WCNC Charlotte pointed out.
"But, it's hard to change a culture," the sheriff replied.
Open Door Policy: McFadden said he encourages officers who have a problem to approach him. If they don't, McFadden says he can't help.
McFadden said the retiring officer that penned a parting email never came to him directly with concerns.
"If he really was concerned about it, I thought he could come to me and say, 'Here are some solutions to the problems,'" McFadden said. "To complain without a solution is not helping."
McFadden said he called the officer who emailed him in September and shared her concerns with command staff at the time.
"I took time to call her three times on one day to find out what her concerns were," he said. "I'm always going to be here for you. I will always have your back. My door is open. If you have a problem, I have told them 100 times, come to me first. You got a problem? You got the solution? Bring it to me and let's put it in effect."
RELATED: 'You're just fueling the fire' | Mecklenburg County sheriff talks consequences of recording fights at school
The sheriff said his employees can trust him.
"If you have a problem, come and tell me," he said. "There will not be any retaliation. Now, if you've violated any procedure, then you have to suffer the consequences."
The North Carolina Department of Labor investigated two complaints about conditions inside the jail in recent months, according to Director of Communications and Policy Development Jennifer Haigwood. She said the Occupational Safety and Health arm of the agency closed those investigations after the sheriff's office provided a "timely, detailed response."
McFadden responds: Sheriff's lengthy statement
A day after this WCNC Charlotte's investigation first aired, McFadden responded in a lengthy public statement.
"I accept and acknowledge that the responsibility for seeing to the safety of all MCSO staff ultimately falls to me," McFadden said in part. "This is not a responsibility I take lightly and have issued multiple directives aimed to enhance the safety and security for personnel working in the detention center."
Additionally, McFadden apologized if his reaction adversely damaged staff morale.
"It is difficult and humbling to read the criticism of some of the staff – former and even present – I recognize and acknowledge that I may have come across as less supportive and grateful than I truly am," he wrote. "For that unintentional and inaccurate appearance, I sincerely apologize."
Read the full statement from Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden in response to the WCNC Charlotte investigation