News & Opinion

Sheriff McFadden Responds to State Report Deeming Jail Unsafe

Garry McFadden
Sheriff Garry McFadden speaks to reporters at a press conference on Friday. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

At a press conference Friday, Sheriff Garry McFadden remained steadfast and defiant in response to a report released by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) this week ordering him to fix issues caused by staffing shortages in the Mecklenburg County Detention Center in Uptown within 60 days. 

As he has over the past year, McFadden on Friday acknowledged that the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) is experiencing critical staff shortages — there are currently 157 vacancies in the department, meaning 33% of allotted positions are empty — but chalked it up to “The Great Resignation” that is occurring in many industries across the United States. 

McFadden told reporters he considers the jail a safe place, citing the fact that, of 1,200 COVID cases within the jail, there have been no deaths, saying that makes his department “better than Novant.” He acknowledged, however, that one detention officer did pass away from COVID, referring to longtime MCSO employee Coretta Downing, who died in August 2020. 

On Thursday, the state’s Chief Jail Inspector Chris Wood ordered McFadden to fix issues caused by staffing shortages in the jail within 60 days. Wood’s letter was preceded by a December report from Wood that recommended McFadden’s department depopulate the jail by nearly 33% from more than 1,400 incarcerated people to less than 1,000.

This week, with the jail population not yet having gotten below 1,300, Wood demanded Garry McFadden create a “plan for correction” by March 11 and act on it by April 11. 

On Friday, McFadden updated some of the numbers cited in the report, stating that, as of noon Friday, there were 834 people in custody at the jail. The sheriff pointed out that it is not his call who gets to leave the jail and said he has been working with a number of area agencies including the district attorney’s office and other departments in surrounding areas to help relocate or release some people incarcerated in Uptown. 

McFadden said that, in the 24 hours preceding Friday’s press conference, 109 people had been released from the jail while another 79 had been booked into custody. He said the “revolving door” nature of incarceration at the jail makes it especially difficult to depopulate.  

State law gives the NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) the authority to order corrections at a jail that is found to be unsafe or close the entire facility if corrections can’t be made; the latter would be an unprecedented move to occur at a jail as large as the one in Uptown.

“There has not been any talk of shutting down any jail,” McFadden insisted on Friday. 

Report details unsafe conditions at jail

Wood, who works as chief jail inspector for the NCDHHS Division of Health Service Regulation (DHSR), stated in his December letter that, “Staffing shortages exist that pose an imminent threat to safety of the inmates and staff at [Mecklenburg County Detention Center-Central].”

In his follow-up on Thursday, Wood got specific. 

A 15-page report attached to the letter details DSHR’s findings from a Dec. 21 on-site visit to the jail and from documents and records that his staff has reviewed since. The report includes numerous examples of how staffing shortages have made things unsafe for guards and people incarcerated at the jail. This includes shifts that saw dozens of vacancies, resulting in many times when staff could not meet the minimum standards of inmate supervision. 

The report points out state law that reads, “No person may be confined in a local confinement facility unless custodial personnel are present and available to provide continuous supervision in order that custody will be secure.” 

Reporting by the Charlotte Observer in October 2021 found that MCSO violated state regulations designed to ensure the safety of detainees in connection with the deaths of two people incarcerated at the Uptown jail within eight days of each other in May 2021. The violations came in staff’s failure to check on detainees as often as they are required to.

Thursday’s report also outlines how staffing shortages have made things more volatile in the jail, detailing numerous physical assaults by incarcerated people against guards and against one another. DSHR reviewed 454 incident reports filed between Jan. 1-Dec. 9, 2021. 

“Many of the incidents were considered serious including assaults on staff, assaults on staff with weapons, inmate on inmate fights, and searches that resulted in the discovery of homemade weapons,” the report reads. 

McFadden on Friday claimed there have been no assaults on staff involving weapons since Nov. 2, 2021, repeating it multiple times for emphasis during his press conference. 

Former employees speak out

In January, Queen City Nerve spoke to two former MCSO staff members who reached out after former colleagues came under attack multiple times.

In fall 2021, about a dozen former MCSO staff members issued an open letter to media and city leaders expressing their concerns with unsafe conditions in the jail that they said were a result of Garry McFadden’s policies. 

“Currently the environment in the Mecklenburg County Jail is a very hostile and volatile one for employees,” the letter read. “The jail is out of the control of the staff charged with maintaining control. 

Hope Abraham spoke out against Garry McFadden
Hope Abraham says she was forced into an early retirement from Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office after Garry McFadden took office because she began to feel unsafe in the jail. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

The letter alleged that McFadden created a hostile environment for staff, often dehumanizing and degrading them by calling them “slaves” and insisting he needed “to get them out of what he calls a ‘plantation mentality.'” 

“This is particularly derogatory language especially when you consider that it is coming from a Department Head within Mecklenburg County [whose department] prides themselves and trains its employees on embracing the diversity of those that may not speak or act like others would like them to.” 

The letter — as well as the former employees Queen City Nerve has spoken with who were not a part of drafting the letter — blames McFadden’s behavior for the recent staffing shortage, noting that dozens of employees have left MCSO and taken jobs at lower-paying departments in the area. 

McFadden spoke out against recent reporting on MCSO during Friday’s press conference, claiming the media was trying to divide his staff and turn them against him while insisting recent stories about his department had only brought his staff closer. 

In terms of solutions for the ongoing issues within the jail, a release handed out to reporters at Friday’s press conference stated the department has implemented a new overtime policy to ensure adequate staffing while no longer forcing personnel to work extended hours; increased starting pay for detention officers and deputies to $52,530; and launched a new Tactical Response Unit “to enhance safety and security of staff and residents.” 

McFadden did not answer questions from reporters on Friday, instead insisting “I think we have been transparent,” before leaving the room after his comments. 

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One Comment

  1. The headline here should have been: “Sheriff holds news conference regarding the ongoing jail crisis, and refuses to take questions from the press or responsibility”.

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