Former Staff Speaks Out About Issues at Mecklenburg County Jail
COVID-19 magnifies existing problems
The first time Hope Abraham laid eyes on Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden was directly following his swearing in on Dec. 4, 2018. McFadden was doing his rounds to introduce himself to all his new officers and staff. Abraham, then a 22-year veteran of the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, was working at what was then called Jail North, where she would pick up overtime shifts on top of her normal shifts at the Mecklenburg County central jail in Uptown Charlotte.
Her first impression of her new boss was not great.
According to Abraham and several other detention officers who have told similar stories, McFadden’s first speech was a challenge to his staff.
“He got up in front of everybody, he said ‘Who don’t want to be here? Let me know now so I can go ahead and give you your walking papers.’ I was like, ‘Well damn, this is how you start off?’ It was very arrogant.”
McFadden’s introduction speeches don’t sound out of the ordinary for an incoming sheriff who wanted to change the culture in the department. In fact, McFadden enjoyed plenty of popularity as he began his term, following through on his campaign promise to end the 287g program that partnered MCSO with ICE and pushing through progressive policies to help people incarcerated in his jails.
In what would have been unheard of during previous administrations, local activist groups called a press conference in January 2019 to mark McFadden’s first 30 days in office and thank him for ending 287g. Queen City Nerve recognized him as “Best Rabble Rouser” in our 2019 Best in the Nest awards, citing his proclivity to shake up the status quo in law enforcement.
However, happenings over the past year have cast McFadden’s tenure in a new light, as violent incidents inside the Mecklenburg County jail have become more frequent and dozens of former staff members have begun to speak out against his policies.
In late 2021, 11 former staff members sent an open letter to local elected officials calling on them to take specific actions “to have order and control restored in the jail.”
On Dec. 23, the NC Department of Health and Human Services released a report recommending that MCSO depopulate the jail by nearly 33% from 1,407 incarcerated people to less than 1,000.
In the report, Chris Wood, chief jail inspector with NC DHHS Division of Health Service Regulation, wrote, “Staffing shortages exist that pose an imminent threat to safety of the inmates and staff at [Mecklenburg County Detention Center-Central].”
While McFadden has responded to the report by blaming COVID-19 outbreaks and pointing to similar staffing shortages across the country, the NC DHHS report also cites recent interviews in which McFadden has blamed staff for not complying with certain policies and procedures.
For Abraham, who said she was forced into an early retirement in March 2021, this all comes back to the way McFadden has approached his position since his swearing in on Dec. 4, 2018.
“What he don’t realize, the people who work under you, they make you or break you,” Abraham told Queen City Nerve. “You’re only as good as your crew is, but he came in there so arrogant and just didn’t care.”
Now as McFadden approaches his first reelection campaign and a crisis in his jail, at least one former MCSO staff member has announced their intentions to run against him.
On Jan. 7, former MCSO assistant facility commander Aujiena Hicks, who was fired by McFadden in December 2018 before he was even sworn into office, announced her candidacy for sheriff.
Though now employed by the Gaston County Sheriff’s Office, Hicks told Queen City Nerve she could no longer stand by while her former MCSO colleagues were attacked, incarcerated people were placed in unsafe conditions, and the department she once took pride in was allowed to fall into disrepute.
Hicks said she has stayed in close touch with people who are still employed in MCSO facilities, and decided to run due to calls from those who used to work under her calling on her to do so.
“These people are like family, and they’re suffering greatly,” she said. “I just had to do something. I don’t know where it will go, but people need people that know the operation. People need people that care about the people that run the operation and the people that are incarcerated, and are going to do it in the most humane and dignified way. This is not happening right now. People are reaching out and I have to do something.”
Attacks increase at Mecklenburg County jail
Hicks said she had only met McFadden once in passing before learning he was running for sheriff. She had no reason to believe her job was in trouble when he was elected in November 2018, just as she marked her 18th anniversary working with MCSO.
However, on the day before McFadden was sworn in, she began to see posts from colleagues who were being called into the jail one by one and let go. Soon she got a call asking her to come in.
“Garry didn’t talk to me about it, he sent the chiefs to do that, and they were very upset about it,” she recalled. “They didn’t understand it themselves.”
In a termination letter signed by McFadden on Dec. 3, 2018, McFadden writes that Hicks’ services are no longer required, and unemployment paperwork from the NC Department of Commerce states the reason for her termination as “lack of work.”
Though McFadden turned down requests for an interview for this story, MCSO did respond to a request for comment on specific claims and concerns, including the firing of Hicks and others before McFadden took office.
An MCSO spokesperson cited NC law that gives sheriffs the exclusive right to hire, discharge, and supervise the employees in their respective office and to do so “at will,” which means they can legally let go of employees without giving them a reason.
Within three days after her firing, Hicks had a job at Gaston County Sheriff’s Office. She brought over another person who had just been let go, and another the next week. She estimates that in the time since, at least a dozen people have left MCSO for GCSO despite the significant decrease in pay.
Since then, she has watched from the outside as attacks on her former colleagues have risen.
Jail records show a more than 400% increase in attacks on guards by detainees from fiscal year 2019, when there were 13 recorded attacks, to 2021 when there were 68.
Reporting by WCNC’s Nate Morabito in late 2021 uncovered email correspondence between staff members who were concerned about “dangerously low” levels of staffing within the jail. Responding to those concerns, McFadden told them he had been “putting out fires that I believe supervisors should be handling” then continuing to “put out more fires that go on unattended because staff are tired.”
In the emails, dated September 2021, McFadden said some of his staff were out “because the government give them that option.”
It’s not just the detention officers who are put in dangerous situations by the conditions inside the jail. 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.
In an open-letter response to the NC DHHS report in January, McFadden stated that his department had begun depopulating the jail and reallocating personnel from the juvenile detention center to the Uptown jail.
“We have been very transparent about the shortages facing the agency and we are exhausting all options to ensure the safety and security of [Mecklenburg County Detention Center-Central],” McFadden stated. “These are unprecedented times. Our staff has worked through the COVID-19 Pandemic since the beginning of 2020. They are fatigued, coping with loss due to the virus or battling the virus themselves while still fulfilling their duties at MCSO. We must take all of these factors into account, but we will not cease in our efforts to adequately operate our detention facility.”
A refusal to act
Attempting to look past McFadden’s aggressive introductory speech, detention officer Hope Abraham continued to do her job the way she had always done it upon his swearing-in. However, it was upon the onset of the pandemic that she began experiencing issues with leadership.
It began with a supply of masks for detention officers that came in a box with an expiration date six years past. Abraham told Queen City Nerve that, upon questioning her superiors about the expired masks, she received a call from McFadden himself, who asked her full name and details about what she did and where in the jail she worked, then abruptly ended the call without addressing the issue.
The incident that led to her retirement also involved a mask, though under much different circumstances. Abraham recalled that she got into it with a detainee about his refusal to wear a mask while he was on the phone, and after he got off the call he told her that if he saw her outside of the jail he would “blow her motherfuckin’ head off.”
Abraham filed a report for communicating threats but it went ignored, and when she went to her superior, he told her there would be no repercussions for the incident, calling Abraham “a hothead.”
She was moved to a new pod, where an inmate began giving her trouble by allegedly masturbating in front of her and throwing urine and feces through a hole in his cell door any time she or other officers would get near. She said officers could have put the man in solitary confinement or at least forced him to close the hole through which he was targeting them, but she was told to laugh it off and the detainee would eventually get tired.
“As long as I’ve worked there, I have never had urine or feces thrown at me,” Abraham said. “You can talk junk all day long, as long as you keep your hands to yourself. You don’t approach me, we’re fine.”
Things came to a head soon thereafter when the detainee who had threatened to shoot her attacked one of her coworkers, injuring them. She said she felt guilty for the incident even though she had done what she could to raise the alarm about the detainee. She blamed the issue on policies implemented by McFadden.
“They let everything go over. ‘Just stand down, be easy, don’t do this, don’t do that,’” Abraham said, referencing her superiors. “Why? This is our job. I told them to give the keys to the HNICs [slang for detainees who call the shots in the jail] and let them run the pod. What do y’all need us here to work for? You are leaving the institution to be run by the inmates.”
Abraham decided she couldn’t take it anymore and took paid leave. She saw a doctor who diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder, then requested a new position within MCSO that did not involve engaging with detainees, citing ADA accommodations.
She was offered a secretarial job that would bring a $15,000 pay cut, which she declined, insisting that she be given one of the other open non-detainee-facing job positions that had been posted publicly and wouldn’t force her to take a pay cut.
By March 1, 2021, Abraham had run out of paid time off and bills were piling up. Four years short of receiving her full pension, she retired. She now works at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. A case she filed against MCSO with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is still pending.
Concerns for the incarcerated
An open letter sent to local elected officials and signed by 11 former MCSO staff members — which do not include Hicks or Abraham — cites the rise in attacks on detention officers as a reason for action, though staffing shortages and COVID-19 outbreaks also pose a grave risk to those incarcerated in the facility.
Queen City Nerve spoke with two men who we confirmed were recently incarcerated at the jail in Uptown. One man, who asked not to be named due to pending charges and concerns that he may end up back inside, spent three weeks in the jail in December. He described spending the first seven days in a pod with 14 other men, all of whom were made to sit and sleep on the floor.
He recalled watching one man suffer from four seizures during his first day in the pod, claiming that after each seizure staff would simply take the man out of the room for a short time for treatment then roll him back into the pod in a wheelchair.
Once he was finally placed into a cell, the man said he was kept there for 23 hours a day for the next two weeks, only let out to shower, use the phone or socialize for one hour. He noticed a lack of detention officers compared to past times he had been incarcerated, and said lunch would come later and later in the day as time progressed.
Another man who was incarcerated at the Mecklenburg County jail in December said there was a lack of COVID-19 testing for detainees.
“Through the processing they don’t know if you have corona they just take you into the quarantine room,” he said, adding that he quarantined with three to five people at a time.
At the time of a state-run inspection carried out on Dec. 21 that led in part to the NC DHHS report, a fourth of the incarcerated population was reported as being infected with COVID-19.
One December detainee said many of his fellow detainees didn’t shower because they wanted to use their time outside of the cell to call family, but gang members would tie up the phones and claim them for themselves and fellow members.
Queen City Nerve spoke with defense attorney Tim Emry, who is currently running for district attorney against incumbent Spencer Merriweather. Emry said he was concerned when he received the open letter from former MCSO staff, as it appeared to be calling for more harsh treatment of detainees, something he stands strongly against.
Speaking after the release of the NC DHHS report, however, he said the conditions described within were worrisome for both staff and detainees.
Since the pandemic started, Emry said he’s had multiple clients who felt like they were assaulted or targeted by staff, ignored when they were having a medical emergency, and/or not adequately advised or protected from the risk of COVID-19.
“The concern with staff shortages and low staff morale centers around safety, both for the people who are locked up and the people working inside the jail,” Emry wrote in an email. “If staff feels unsupported or without adequate assistance, they may start going it on their own, not following protocol or best practices. If this happens and they become assaultive or aggressive to the people who are locked up, I would imagine it could get very ugly.
“Being incarcerated is traumatic and stressful enough, even when conditions are normal. In the situation we have now: pandemic, lockdowns due to exposure and infection, staff shortages, it can escalate quickly and threaten the safety and security of all parties.”
It’s a situation that Hicks warned can lead to an “old-school jail mentality,” one that she’s concerned has already taken hold within the Mecklenburg County Detention Center.
“The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office has always operated under direct supervision principles, and there’s a strategic and specific way that things were done to minimize the impact of incarceration for individuals by treating them humanely and building rapport and respect with those individuals,” she said, “and when you do not practice within those principles what happens is you get the old-school jail mentality and it creates chaos.”
She credits this chaos to McFadden’s policies and his inexperience running jails, adding that he has spent too much of his tenure focused on photo opportunities and press events.
“You should be concentrating on the safety of the detainees, staff and the community, and not be self-serving but continue to do what you’re required to do as a sheriff by serving,” she said. “Serving the community means maintaining safety in those facilities around this community. If you have a lack of staff to do so, you’re inadequate at the job you were voted in to do.”
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.