Former intern claims unsafe conditions at Buncombe County Jail

THE BIG HOUSE: The Buncombe County Detention Center holds roughly 450 men and women across 13 housing units. Conditions at the jail were recently called into question by a former Public Defender’s office intern who claims he witnessed instances of mistreatment and other violations. Photo by Brooke Randle

Conditions at Buncombe County’s jail have attracted heightened scrutiny in the wake of a string of inmate deaths in the last few years. Most recently, 48-year-old DeMarcus Royal died April 6, and officials are still waiting to hear back regarding the cause of death.

Under state law, the Division of Health Service Regulation is charged with overseeing jail conditions. The division’s Jails and Detention Unit conducts semiannual surveys and does a compliance review if a detainee dies in custody.

Concerns about the jail aren’t limited to deaths, however. The broader question is: Are conditions in the jail harmful to inmates’ health and safety?

Aaron Sarver, public information officer for the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, cites two 2021 inspection reports indicating that the detention center was in compliance with state regulations as of last December. A June 9 report also found no deficiencies.

But Caleb Resnick, a recent Warren Wilson College graduate who served as an intern from last November through this April in the Buncombe County Public Defender’s Office, says he witnessed several instances of mistreatment of detainees and violations of state law during his time at the center. Resnick is now calling for an independent jail oversight board to address such issues within the facility.

Doing time

After being arrested, handcuffed and placed in the back of a police vehicle, people accused of committing a crime are brought to 20 Davidson Drive — the Buncombe County Detention Center.

Upon entering the facility, officers pat them down and confiscate any belongings, which are then sealed in a bag and marked with identifying information. A sign on the wall encourages new arrivals to notify the officers of any contraband — namely, hidden weapons or ingested drugs — before they’re escorted through the facility’s full-body scanner, which acts as a second set of eyes for security personnel.


HIGH TECH: A body scanner uses splash radiation to alert officers of any contraband such as hidden weapons or ingested drugs, but the technology isn’t perfect. Two recent overdose deaths at the jail were attributed to bags of methamphetamine that were swallowed and then ruptured in the stomach. Photo by Brooke Randle

A magistrate who’s available 24/7 weighs the severity of the offense and decides how long the suspect will be detained. Most of the roughly 25 people who enter the jail each day are able to post bail quickly and are released from custody until they have to appear in court. But about a fifth of detainees stay one night or longer, says Sarver. Those inmates are escorted to a holding area before being placed in one of the jail’s 13 housing units.

As the voices of staff and other inmates bounce off the barren concrete cell walls and fluorescent lights illuminate the stainless steel toilet and sink, most detainees simply settle down on their blue, 5-inch-thick foam mattress pad and wait for justice.

By the book?

On any given day, the jail holds roughly 450 men and women, down from more than 500 in previous years due to the early release of certain inmates in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On a recently launched website, FixJail.org, Resnick chronicles his experience interning at the jail in a 46-page report that details what he says are at least eight violations of North Carolina’s administrative codes and general statutes that he observed during his time there.

Resnick says that inmates were denied bedding and blankets, left in rooms without access to toilets and denied showers and hygienic supplies. He also says detainees were exposed to cold temperatures and bright lights and that facilities were dirty.

Xpress wasn’t able to independently verify those claims, and Sarver disputes Resnick’s allegations. All aspects of the facility, Sarver explains, are regulated by Sections .0100 through .1300 of N.C. state statute G.S. 153A-217. Temperatures within the jail, he says, are controlled not on-site but remotely by Buncombe County staff and are tracked digitally by a software program.

The data from last December through March shows temperatures ranging from 70 to roughly 74 degrees Fahrenheit. State law requires jails to maintain a temperature of no less than 68 degrees during the cooler months and not more than 85 degrees Fahrenheit during warm weather.

But individuals vary in the way they experience a given temperature, Sarver points out, and some inmates may feel uncomfortable even when the jail is meeting legal requirements.

While Sarver did not address the other claims, he says that detention center staff met with Resnick earlier this year to discuss his concerns and ultimately disputed the accusations. Resnick, says Sarver, “is concerned for the well-being of detainees, and he’s very passionate and is very adamant and very determined. And we appreciate that. However, we just disagree on the facts.”

Watching the watchers

Resnick, however, maintains that in order to fairly address complaints and conduct reviews of jail conditions, an independent oversight board is needed.

The idea isn’t new. In 2008, the American Bar Association urged federal, state and local governments to establish independent public bodies to conduct routine inspections of prisons, jails and other detention facilities. These entities would be tasked with producing publicly accessible reports about the conditions observed, to enhance transparency and improve the treatment of people in custody.

This is a national issue, says Resnick, and though some states and localities do have varying levels of independent oversight, he believes even the most progressive jails fail to meet adequate standards. “Unfortunately, in my research I have not been able to identify any jail/prison oversight body that meets the Bar Association’s 2008 recommendations,” Resnick explains.

Accordingly, his website includes an online petition aimed at encouraging local elected officials to establish independent oversight of the county jail. So far, the petition has garnered just over 100 signatures.

Deadly detention

A Jan. 10 investigation by the Asheville Citizen Times based on 14 years of data concluded that Buncombe’s jail is the deadliest in the state.

Since 2020, eight inmates have died while in custody, including two by overdose and one by suicide. Pre-existing medical conditions were deemed the cause of death for four others, according to autopsy reports shared with Xpress.

Sarver points out that since Sheriff Quentin Miller was elected in 2018, no inmate deaths have been attributed to use of force or lack of care by detention center staff.

HEALTH JUSTICE: Detainees are screened for medical conditions, prescription medications and illicit drug use. Inmates who disclose substance use receive information about harm reduction strategies and recovery resources and are monitored for detox symptoms. Photo by Brooke Randle

Many of the inmates, notes Sarver, have serious physical or mental health issues that have often been left untreated, sometimes for years. Issues such as homelessness and drug addiction can also compound health problems.

And while Sarver agrees that every death should be investigated, “There is a big difference between someone who dies in our care because of a natural death, because of preexisting health conditions, and someone who is in a facility where there was negligence found.”

Inmates who’ll be staying at the jail are screened by a nurse, who’s available around the clock. The process includes checking vital signs as well as asking questions about medical conditions, prescription medications and illicit drug use. Inmates who disclose substance use receive information about harm reduction strategies and recovery resources and are monitored for detox symptoms. Officers perform visual safety checks two times per hour, walking the hallways, peering through cell windows and pressing a button on the cell door to record the time.

The jail has made strides in protecting inmates, says Sarver, including beefing up the facility’s medical contract and installing the body scanner. But the technology isn’t perfect. The two recent overdose deaths at the jail were attributed to bags of methamphetamine that were swallowed and then ruptured in the stomach.

“It’s tough,” he concedes. “County jails are not designed to be medical centers, but we’re trying our best to meet the needs. But if we’re being honest and direct, we’re just not going to be able to meet the needs of some of these folks.”

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5 thoughts on “Former intern claims unsafe conditions at Buncombe County Jail

  1. Cheryl

    A jail of any sort is not a recreation facility, a hospital, daycare, camp or a mental institution. I have many friends who are in law enforcement and work and different county jails in WNC. It is disappointing for a former intern to make allegations without spending a week in the shoes of a jailer. If an inmate was refused access to a bathroom, blankets, and/or personal hygiene products – one must ask, “was this for a temporary period of time or was it routine practice?”. If it is not documented routine practice, it could be a one time oversight/issue which should be handled internally. Over the years, I have found that county jails are called under fire because they do not cater to inmates. The jails and their staff do not coddle the inmates and don’t lend a shoulder to lean on – it is ridiculous for anyone to feel this is a just measurement for someone who is in custody. Also, the inspections are completed on a completely random day without notice provided to the jail. If these are continuing issues, how is it the jail passed the inspections? It’s not possible. Please, work there for a minimum of 7 days on their rotations and get a feel for what REALLY goes on in the jail before “cherry picking” issues and wanting to create a difficult time for people who do their best to protect the public and also the inmates. With the current climate, defunding of police and so forth, could it be possible that the funds are not available to purchase new items such as blankets and personal hygiene products? Is someone being without these items just a result of poor decisions by those higher up? I will agree that being where you cannot obtain a bathroom is not the right route – but there isn’t a time period provided – so it could have been for 5 minutes, 30 minutes, etc. It doesn’t necessarily mean it was for an extended period of time. Concerning the showers, please someone look up the minimum amount of time the jail has to allow inmates to shower. I believe it’s once every 3 days. The inmates can remain in their cells up to 3 days without leaving the cell but most jails do not cause that type of hardship unless there are potentially harmful circumstances (typically to the inmate themselves). If the governing body and a former intern do not agree with the policies and protocols, I would give more credence to the individuals who are there on a daily basis and for a minimum of a 12 hour rotation. The state mandates so many things are documented, there are cameras where they need to be and are required to function 24/7. The nurse makes rounds at least twice a day (for prescription administration) and on an individual inmate as-needed basis. The Buncombe County jail is big! Can you imagine trying to not only maintain control but simply be responsible for providing basic needs to that many people? I know it’s a hard job and I know mistakes are made but not intentionally or with the desired effect to harm an inmate. Shining lights… is that in reference to the lights in the cell, the rec area or the halls? If lights were being shined into an inmate’s face – where was the light? Don’t forget… anything at all provided about the mandated requirements is a gift and often times, gifts have to be earned. How many inmates did smuggle contraband into the jail and how many caught an extra charge for the offense? Many times, no additional charges are filed due to multiple reasons. Let’s get more information on the whole picture before stirring the controversial pot…

    I have worked with interns and at least 75% of them felt they could “fix” my company – very early on. These individuals were incredibly intelligent and very logical. However, what you see on paper does not always compute into reality. Has this happened in this situation?

    Did the intern take his concerns to the Buncombe County Commissioners (who are overseers of the Sheriff’s office, who in turn is the overseer of the jail)? If not, why? If so, why wasn’t it noted in the article? And again, if not, is there a strategy hoped to be gained by shining a light on particular items and blacking the eye of the Sheriff’s department?

    Thank you for taking the time to read my response. I am not saying WNC county jails are perfect but I am saying if they were as imperfect as this article implies, they would not be open – the State would have closed them and transferred the inmates to other jails.

    Cheryl

    • Caleb

      Hi Cheryl,

      I encourage you to visit fixjail.org, as you may find it covers interactions not discussed in this article. Specifically, interactions with the Chairman of the Commissioners are detailed.

  2. Richard B.

    Is it possible that Warren Wilson student Resnick might accomplish more social good if he spent his time and mental energy figuring out how to help those addicted and
    challenged by brain issues to avoid behaviors that ultimately lead to jail time?
    It appears that Mr. Resnick is pursuing a degree in social justice or related academic field of study. His internship would provide grist for his likely required dissertation.
    He evidently feels that it will be more beneficial for him to point out shortcomings, which will be received more eagerly by his mentors, than to suggest remedies.
    This mindset is all too prevalent among the young generation being taught from early grades through college as well as being inundated by the media that the systems, – social, legal, and culturally, – that made America great, should now be dismantled.

    • Lou

      I would say the first order of business should be critical race theory or “how white cops routinely abuse those they are paid to serve”. Asheville has a huge problem with a largely white male police department, though a decent percentage of us are anything but that. This town is simply a smaller version of the world at large; entitled white dudes making life infinitely more difficult for the rest of us.

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