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Deaths in N.C. Jails Are Decreasing, Remain Historically High

Jail deaths in North Carolina dropped significantly last year, the first reduction in seven years. Investigations of the deaths, whether they are deemed suicides, overdoses, or deaths from natural causes, continue to turn up supervision failures, The Charlotte Observer reports. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported 46 “in custody” inmate deaths in the jails for 2023, based on reports submitted by county sheriffs as required by law. Another 17 inmates died “out of custody,” and autopsy reports for several shows they had become infirm behind bars before dying in local hospitals. Three of them overdosed in jail. Still, the 63 deceased inmates last year were well below the 90 reported for 2022, by far the highest death toll since DHHS started tracking. Seventy-seven of the 90 deaths that year were inmates still in custody. Sheriffs, DHHS officials, and those who advocate for inmate health and safety welcomed the decrease in deaths. The toll remains well above what the state was seeing a decade ago when the annual number of deaths was roughly 30.

DHHS spokeswoman Summer Tonizzo said the department was “pleased” to note the reduction in deaths, but referred all questions to the sheriffs who run the roughly 110 jails across the state. Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood, who served as president of the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association last year, couldn’t say for certain what may have caused the deaths to drop. However, he cited several recent changes that may have contributed. Several counties, including Orange, have opened new facilities better designed for inmate observation. The sheriffs’ association also included training on jail death prevention at a recent annual conference. More jails are providing inmates with medications to combat opioid addiction, and paying more attention to inmates with mental illness, Blackwood said. He credited Todd Ishee, the N.C. Department of Adult Correction secretary, with reducing the backlog of jailed inmates awaiting transfer to state prisons, which helps keep jail populations more manageable. “When he came into office he made this a priority and he has done an awesome job at getting it down and keeping it down,” Blackwood said.


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