ASHEVILLE — Inmates at Buncombe County Jail have spent up to a week in group holding areas with no blankets, constant light, cold temperatures and nowhere to sleep but hard surfaces, such as concrete floors, according to several people who have spent time behind bars in the local facility.
“There are no cots, they don’t give you a blanket. Everyone is in flip flops with no socks. And all the booze tanks were full. There are 10 of you in there. And it’s all in concrete,” said Eric Stimson, who said he spent five days trying to find ways to sleep and stay warm in a group cell with an overflowing toilet before being moved to a regular cell for the rest. from his 16-day sentence for impaired driving in January.
The harsh conditions were detailed by three inmates interviewed by the Citizen Times and confirmed by the Buncombe County Chief Public Defender. They appear to represent direct violations of state rules designed to protect those in prison custody, most of whom have not been convicted of the crimes they are charged with and are awaiting their day in court.
Spokespersons for Sheriff Quentin Miller, who is responsible for running the jail, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
It’s unclear whether any action on the conditions has been taken by Miller or the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the prisons. DHHS spokespersons declined to comment, saying the jail complaints are not in the public domain.
COVID-19 masks to block light, slippers for pillows
In an attempt to block out the light to sleep and find some comfort, inmates took to stuffing their court papers behind COVID-19 face masks to use as eye protection, Stimson said, adding that they were piling up their slippers to create something like a pillow.
Regarding COVID-19 infection concerns, he said, “If you didn’t have COVID, you have it now.”
Other interviewees described similar situations where they were held in a detention area for days before being moved to a cell with a bed, blanket and other basics.
Joe Gray, 31, speaking outside the jail after his release on February 23, said he was booked in early February 20 and would be released within hours on a written promise to appear, he said. -he declares.
But Gray – who said his charges included a DUI, driving without a license and child abuse because there were children in his vehicle – instead spent three days in a holding area in jail slippers and without his shirt, which was taken by prison staff. He was left with his jacket and told “it would be cold,” he said.
“And there were a few people in there in shorts and short-sleeved shirts, frozen.”
He said a man who he said told staff he had pneumonia, but was held in the holding cell with a total of eight people.
“By the time I was moved last night in his 40s he was cutting his lungs and he could barely move, and he’s 60 with a bad back, bad knees and they put him to sleep at this floor.”
The story of the inmates in shorts and the 60-year-old man, whose name Gray says he does not know, could not be independently verified by the Citizen Times. Sarver and Carolina Siliceo Perez, another sheriff’s spokesperson, did not respond to specific questions about the story.
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Chief Public Defender Sam Snead said the descriptions of the detainees were “consistent with our observations and information”. Snead said he did not see the situations himself, but heard about them from staff members and others in the public defender’s office.
The times spent in jail discussed by inmates overlap with at least one COVID-19 outbreak announced by sheriff’s spokesman Aaron Sarver on Jan. 13.
Regardless of the stress placed on the system by the pandemic, prisons must follow the state’s administrative code which mandates basic health and safety measures, such as providing mattresses, blankets, and that people not be held in detention areas for long periods of time, said attorney Luke Woollard with NC Disability Rights
“I understand people want to say there is a situation with COVID and we are doing our best, but there are other ways to maintain a COVID safe prison that does not include keeping people in these terms. One would be to give them mattresses and towels. These are for me the most egregious violations of the rules and could easily be corrected.
Some highlights of the North Carolina Administrative Prison Code:
- Containment areas should be heated to a range of at least 70 degrees and no more than 75 degrees.
- Mattresses (at least 4 inches thick), sheets and blankets that are clean and suitable for their intended purpose must be provided to inmates staying overnight. White sheets should be issued at least once a week.
- Detainees must have access to showers at least three times a week. Bath towels and soap will be provided.
- Any detainee detained for more than 24 hours will be given the following items free of charge: toothbrush; toothpaste or toothpaste; comb; feminine hygiene products, if any; deodorant; and shampoo.
- Artificial lighting at night in bedrooms should not exceed 2 foot candles. (Parking lots at night are usually lit with 2-5 foot candles.)
In addition to the lack of mattresses or blankets, interviewees said they were not provided with toothbrushes, soap, or access to showers while held in the detention area.
The news of the poor conditions follows a Citizen Times project revealing that Buncombe prison was the state’s deadliest. The dismal tally was calculated using deaths per 1,0000 inmates from 2008 to 2021 for North Carolina’s 10 largest prisons.
Since that Citizen Times analysis, two other inmates have died, Maria Christina Frisbee on January 25 and DeMarcus Antonio Royal, 48, of Asheville on April 6. No reason for these deaths has yet been given. The prison, pursuant to an agreement with District Attorney Todd Williams, notified the State Bureau of Investigation to investigate inmate deaths. Autopsies are normally performed, with reports then given by the state medical examiner on the causes of death.
It is unclear in which part of the prison Royal, who has been charged with attempted murder, was being held.
Frisbee, 41, charged with felony possession of a stolen motor vehicle, felony possession of methamphetamine and simple possession of a Schedule III controlled substance, was incarcerated at 6:06 p.m. on January 25 in a holding cell for women, according to Sarver, the sheriff. spokesperson.
She was placed under special surveillance due to “a history of booking and the disclosure of a history of drug use, including methamphetamine and fentanyl, during the medical screening that took place during the booking process. “Sarver said in a statement after his death.
At around 8:30 p.m., a detention officer doing rounds entered the women’s holding cell after seeing Frisbee “acting erratically,” Sarver said. The officer called supervisors and a medical staff member who, after checking Frisbee, called EMS, who arrived at 8:45 p.m. and transported her to Mission Hospital at 9:07 p.m. Frisbee died at 11:46 p.m., the statement said.
An initial check of an electronic log of rounds and body camera footage showed prison and medical staff were following policies, Sarver said.
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A woman named Tiffany who spoke outside the Haywood Street Congregational Church in the city center and asked that her surname not be used because she said she feared retaliation if she returned to prison, said she faced the same situation in the detention center. After being arrested in January for failing to appear on a probation violation for breaking and entering, she said she waited “seven to eight days” with up to four other people in a naked detention area with no blankets , without a mattress, without toothbrushes and slippers with no socks in cold conditions before being transferred to an ordinary cell.
“The guard was walking by and we were asking for toilet paper and we weren’t getting it,” she said. “It sucks. They treat people like animals.”
Issues with prisons are supposed to be tracked by DHHS’ Division of Health Services Regulation. The division’s Prisons and Detention Unit conducts inquiries twice a year, investigates complaints, and may also conduct compliance reviews after an inmate’s death.
If a jail is found not to be in compliance with the administrative code, the unit sends a report to the sheriff and the Board of Commissioners – the elected body that funds the jail. The sheriff must submit a remediation plan and make changes. If fixes are not made, the DHHS Secretary has the option of shutting down the facility.
Although complaints are not public, other information such as investigation reports are. The Citizen Times has requested such information, including late last year calling for inspections and compliance reviews after the deaths of Buncombe and the other nine major prisons. These requests have not been met. This year, on February 2, the Citizen Times renewed that request and specifically called for compliance reviews after the most recent deaths in Buncombe Jail, as well as inquiries and inquiries into complaints.
DHHS spokespersons did not respond to an April 13 message requesting an update on the request.
Snead, the chief public defender, said in statements published to the Citizen Times in February and April that he believed the pandemic was the main problem and that conditions could ease with fewer infections.
“If possible, I would like to see accommodations made for the comfort of these inmates as they enter the prison,” he said.
But Woollard, the disability rights advocate, said such issues are no reason to cause suffering.
“It could be a situation where they are trying to do the right thing, but they cannot ignore people’s clear human rights to have a mattress and a towel. It is a nightmare for anyone held in a mass cell for days in these conditions.
Joel Burgess has lived at the WNC for over 20 years, covering politics, government and other news. He has written award-winning stories on topics ranging from gerrymandering to police use of force. Do you have any advice? Contact Burgess at [email protected], 828-713-1095 or on Twitter @AVLreporter. Please help support this kind of journalism with a subscription at the Citizen Times.