Life and hard times in the Buncombe County jail

ON THE UNIT: With 51 inmates locked into two levels of cells surrounding the day room, all is quiet in this housing unit, one of 13 at the Buncombe County Detention Facility. Photo by Virginia Daffron

Steps away from Asheville’s broad, busy front lawn with its grand pair of government buildings lies an entrance to another city. A hidden city. A place where hundreds come and go and eat and sleep and wait and wonder and worry.

Pass between City Hall and the Buncombe County Courthouse and descend a pleasant set of concrete steps to Davidson Drive below. Cross the street and step up into the Buncombe County Detention Center’s harshly echoing lobby. Beyond the reception desk, a set of sliding doors with thick glass panels marks the transition from outside to inside, from the city’s varied colors to a vanilla-hued maze of hard surfaces and fluorescent lights, from the music and clamor of urban life to a constricted world of echoing footsteps, beeping locks and clanging metal doors.

CONTRABAND CATCHER: A new $170,000 body scanning device will help staff at the Buncombe County Detention Facility detect contraband hidden on or inside defendants entering the jail. Officers say eliminating drugs in the facility will make for a safer environment for inmates and staff. Photo by Virginia Daffron

Within this complex, over 500 men and women are typically awaiting trial, serving sentences for misdemeanor convictions or just passing the time until they’re transferred to another facility. A staff of 170 officers maintains order 24 hours a day.

“Sheriff [Quentin] Miller’s made it clear that we want folks to see what we’re doing and how it works,” says Aaron Sarver, public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office. This push for greater transparency includes media tours and new online dashboards displaying a range of information about the jail’s population.

And as a nationwide movement to reduce incarceration rates picks up steam, Buncombe County is pursuing its own ambitious goal of cutting the pretrial jail population by 15% by next September, compared with 2018 figures. The campaign is funded by a $1.75 million Safety and Justice Challenge grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Currently, the jail averages 536 inmates per day, with a total capacity of 604.

Other new initiatives not related to the grant include a body scanner to cut down on contraband entering the jail and a pilot effort to provide a handful of inmates with medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction, perhaps as a prelude to a broader future program.

But while officers tout the facility’s sanitation and orderliness with palpable pride, two local residents who were recently confined there describe feelings of extreme isolation and despair as well as a lack of services to support their reentry into the broader community.

No straight lines

Someone who’s been arrested arrives at an entrance a few hundred feet from the public lobby. From Davidson Drive, police vehicles pass through an electronically controlled gate to enter a courtyard. After parking in a covered area, officers escort their charges inside for booking and intake.

Signage here warns those under arrest to ditch any substances they may be carrying, whether legal or otherwise, by placing them in locked receptacles mounted next to doorways.

“Get rid of whatever you need, no charge: You throw it away, we’re good,” says Capt. Tony Gould, a 24-year Sheriff’s Office veteran who runs the jail. Once those substances get beyond the initial screening, he explains, even a tiny amount becomes the basis for a felony drug possession charge.

Concern about keeping drugs out of the jail is a constant refrain among detention center staffers. The safety of both inmates and department employees, says Gould, depends on stopping drugs at the threshold. Inmates who manage to bring in drugs risk overdosing or may trade the substances to other inmates who might overdose, he explains.

“If we can just try to get the contraband as far down as we can, just get rid of it — whatever new technology comes out, whatever the officers have to do — it will really alleviate our problems,” says Lt. Bert Alexander, another department veteran.

To that end, county taxpayers have just shelled out about $170,000 for a new body-scanning device similar to those found in airports. The machine uses “splash radiation” to look for anything out of the ordinary, Gould explains, including “items hidden on your person or in your person.”

And while the equipment doesn’t record every detail of the subject’s physique, it does pick up masses and solid objects. “There’s no straight lines inside the human body. There’s no right angles and there’s no perfect circles, so if you see any of those three things, that’s a clue that there’s something there,” he continues.

First steps

After clearing that first hurdle, arrestees see a magistrate to hear what charges they face and the conditions set for their release. Some will be free to go after completing an exit process that could include paying bail or posting bond. All can make free calls from the facility’s telephones.

Those who’ll be staying at the jail then proceed to the booking area for a medical screening by a nurse. The process includes checking vital signs as well as questions about medical conditions, prescription medications and illicit drug use. Inmates who disclose substance use receive information about harm reduction strategies and recovery resources. They’re also monitored for detox symptoms.

“I’m not going to tell you mistakes haven’t been made over the years, but you learn from those mistakes, and you get better at what you’re doing,” Alexander maintains.

A report produced by Disability Rights North Carolina on jail deaths in the state in 2017-18 cites one such incident. A woman identified as M.S., the Raleigh-based nonprofit’s report notes, died from a methamphetamine overdose at the Buncombe County Detention Facility. “M.S. repeatedly told jail staff, including officers and the nurse on duty, that she had ingested a large amount of methamphetamine in an effort to hide the drugs from her parole officer,” the report states. “Her behavior was erratic, and she showed signs of overheating. … Jail staff refused to get her adequate medical care, instead locking her into a cell alone where she eventually fell unconscious. M.S. was declared dead from an overdose at a local hospital a few hours later.”

Asked about his top priorities for the jail, Miller said: “Our behavioral health staff … estimate that 60% or more of our inmates have symptoms of one or more of the following: opioid use disorder, substance abuse disorder, severe and persistent mental illness. The jail facility and our criminal justice system are simply not designed to serve the medical and behavioral health needs of our inmates. I will tell you that my challenge is how does the Sheriff’s Office do more to help these individuals while they are incarcerated. I am excited that our county commissioners have endorsed a new [medication-assisted treatment] program, and we now have funding in place … to begin to implement it. That is a big part of the answer to that question.”

Holding cells

From the booking area, inmates proceed to individual or group holding cells before being moved to a longer-term housing assignment. Those placed in solitary confinement, whether for observation or for disciplinary reasons, are kept in padded single cells, with visual safety checks performed four times per hour. Officers walk through the hallways, peering through cell windows and bumping a button on the cell door with a thwack to record the time.

ON HOLD: A single holding cell in the male booking area of the Buncombe County Detention facility includes a sink, toilet and mattress. Photo by Virginia Daffron

On the day of this reporter’s visit, a female inmate occupies one of those single cells. There’s no indication of when she was initially placed there, but a sign on the door says her segregation will continue for another 11 days.

“This inmate was in general population and she assaulted another inmate, so there was a disciplinary process that resulted in her being sanctioned for that length of time,” Gould explains. In compliance with state requirements, she’s allowed to leave the cell three times a week to shower, he says, adding that inmates held separately are typically allowed access to printed religious works such as the Bible. And in this case, glancing through the window, Gould spots writing materials.

Recurring cycles

Asheville native Tony Walker has gone through the booking process in both the old and new jails, beginning with his first ride in a police car at age 17. Until 1992, the jail was on the 15th floor of the Buncombe County Courthouse. That year, the current facility was opened; it was expanded in 2006-07, with the newest portion coming on line in 2008.

“The old jail was nasty,” he recalls. “But the officers treated you good; they treated you like a person. I guess that was before Asheville grew, and a lot of the officers were from Asheville. So they already kinda had a relationship before you even got in trouble.”

Now 47, Walker has a history of periodic incarceration spanning 30 years and including eight jail and prison stints, mostly related to selling drugs. But his most recent weeklong confinement in the Buncombe County Jail, stemming from what he describes as a miscommunication about child support payments a few months back, tested his fortitude in new ways.

The chain of events Walker relates shows how detention can deepen a cycle of financial insecurity and lead to job and housing loss. Although his wages had been garnished for child support payments, Walker was arrested for failing to appear at a court date he says he hadn’t received notification of. In an attempt to keep her husband from losing his job, Walker’s wife used the couple’s savings to pay court fees. Due to the number of days he missed awaiting trial, however, Walker lost the job anyway, and the couple was evicted from their apartment when they couldn’t pay the rent.

“That’s the first time I ever really cried,” he reveals. “I mean, I cried before, but that’s the first time I ever felt like that, because I know that I’m not trying to commit no crime. I know that I’m trying to do the right thing, and I know I have been doing the right thing. I know I have been complying with the child support, everything.”

Nonetheless, Walker seems determined to put a positive spin on his account. “It’s one of those things that just made me a little better,” he says, turning the conversation to his new job counseling youths at Green Opportunities, a local nonprofit, and his service on the Safety and Justice Challenge Community Engagement Workgroup alongside Buncombe County law enforcement and judicial officials.

One of the things Walker says he’s learned as a result of his time on the committee — part of the county’s push to reduce its jail population — is that he’s not alone in getting caught in a recurring cycle of incarceration and release. Statistics examined by the working group, he says, show that “When you keep them in [jail], usually they start losing their jobs and they start getting threats about losing their housing. So when they do get out, they’re in a desperate mood to want to make some money fast. So then they’ll commit a crime.”

Creating structure

In the newest part of the jail, all is calm and tidy in a housing block that can accommodate up to 56 people. On this day, there are 51 male inmates in the unit, according to the only soul in sight: a correctional officer who’s standing in front of a computer terminal. Two tiers of cells, some equipped with two bunks, line the perimeter, with a double-height open space in the center that serves as a common area. Each of these cells has its own toilet as well as hot and cold running water, says Gould. On the upper tier, he notes , there are also cubicles for remote video visits with family and friends as well as rooms for conferring with an attorney or probation officer. Except when special arrangements are made for inmates unable to climb the stairs to the upper level, he explains, all personal visits now happen via video conference, as do some initial appearances before a judge.

TELL IT TO THE JUDGE: This room at the Buncombe County Detention Facility has a link directly to courtrooms next door in the Buncombe County Courthouse. Some defendants’ initial appearances before a judge are now via video rather than in person. Photo by Virginia Daffron

Each inmate is allowed one free 15-minute video visit per week with up to two people who are down in the detention center lobby; additional 15-minute visits cost $9.75. Online visits cost $6.50 for 10 minutes, $16.25 for 25 minutes.

Inmates in this unit are allotted 5½ hours a day of “free time,” says Gould. During these periods, cell doors unlock and inmates may enter the common area to read, watch television, make phone calls, send email from kiosks, shower and interact with one another. Fresh air from outdoors is pumped into an exercise area at the far end of the space. Diffuse natural light enters from a frosted window on the far wall.

Even then, however, prisoners are constrained by a wide variety of rules; read the complete list here.

As the men begin emerging from their cells, Gould clarifies some of those procedures, explaining that inmates must ask the officer on duty for permission to cross a red line that divides the main common area from the shower room.

“It’s about respecting space and providing some structure,” says Gould. “For example, we also require them to have their beds made every day. We’re just trying to give some structure. It seems like it’s a pretty demanding rule, but making your bed is kind of basic.”

Nuts and bolts

Down on the first floor, four female inmates fold towels in a cavernous laundry room. The jail boasts two large commercial washing machines and two commercial dryers that do eight to 10 huge loads per day, according to Gould.

Farther down the hallway is the kitchen, where a 10-person crew of male inmates is busy making lunch, served on trays that are transported to the housing units on carts. The facility serves 1,700 to 1,800 meals a day, all of them prepared according to state nutrition guidelines, says Gould. Special diets are available to satisfy specific medical or religious requirements.

Most jail inhabitants prefer to work as much as possible to make the time pass more quickly, he says. Work assignments depend on the inmate’s risk classification: Those who’ve already been sentenced are eligible for outside assignments, perhaps at the county landfill or with a local nonprofit.

Across the hallway is a room where commissary transactions are processed. Inmates place their orders via kiosks in the housing units, using funds from their personal accounts; an outside vendor fills and packages the orders. The main purchase, says Gould, goes in once a week, and there’s no limit on how much a person can order if they have the money to pay for it. For those who find they’re running low, snack packs are available for purchase daily. “They have different ones you can set up,” he notes. “They all have chips, a couple of drinks, a cookie or whatever in there.”

Back up on the third floor, in a dimly lit classroom, a facilitator leads about 10 inmates through a substance abuse session. Farther along the hall, Gould points out a room that until recently housed the library, which has been relocated to the jail annex. Retired librarians who volunteer at the jail, he explains, load and deliver carts containing a rotating selection of the jail’s “at least 10,000 books” to each unit on a weekly basis. Meanwhile, the vacated space will soon become another classroom to ease the crunch for the “exploding” amount of programming he says the jail now offers.

At the moment, though, the facility’s general education program is on hold while the county tries to hire a new instructor, Sarah Gayton reports. “There’s a number of programs related to reentry: substance abuse recovery, some harm reduction programming, informing individuals where they can access services,” continues Gayton, the director of community integration and medication-assisted treatment services. “There’s also a number of religious programs going on that speak to folks’ spiritual needs. And some activity-based programs such as yoga and meditation that, ideally, help support coping skills and also help folks manage the environment here and provide them with skills they can use once they’re on the outside.”

Many of those programs are run by paid staff from community partners such as Goodwill, Our VOICE and Helpmate, says Gayton. All told, about 150 volunteers, many of them associated with religious groups or other charitable organizations, come in to offer additional opportunities.

Suicidal thoughts

In any given week, however, access to those programs is limited to a handful of jail residents, according to both Tony Walker and “Greg,” a 29-year-old Asheville resident who spent time at the facility in 2014 and 2015.

Greg, who asked Xpress to use a pseudonym to protect his privacy, says he was born into a family of drug users in a small community in central North Carolina near the Virginia state line. His dad left when he was still an infant, and Greg and his brother were raised by their mom. “We had babysitters that would come over when my mom went out and partied,” he recalls. “We would hang out with them, and they were drinking and smoking weed and stuff like that. That’s when I started using, about 10 or 11.”

Greg first overdosed at 16 and first went to jail at 17. In his hometown facility, he says, drugs were relatively easy to come by, and he continued using while locked up. Released after about 45 days, he soon found himself stuck in a repeating cycle.

“I went back and forth. I was sentenced to rehabs — the usual thing when you’re struggling with addiction. I did that for years. I accumulated a little bit of clean time here, then went back, then a little bit of clean time,” he recalls.

Eventually Greg moved to Buncombe County, where he worked temp jobs in manufacturing and landscaping. His first stint in the Buncombe County Jail was one night in 2014; he was intoxicated and was released the next morning.

In 2015, he went back in on charges he doesn’t want to discuss. Between awaiting trial and serving a misdemeanor sentence, he was locked up for about five months.

For Greg, the hardest part of the experience was the isolation. “I was locked back 19 hours a day in a cell by myself. The first month was a struggle: dealing with my thoughts and the shame and guilt of using, the crimes that I did. Just sitting in it. I didn’t have anyone to talk to.”

He didn’t have outside support either. “My family still uses till this day,” he reveals, adding, “They did contact me after about three months of me being in there.” Because neither Greg nor his family had money to deposit in a jail account, he wasn’t able to contact anyone outside the facility or make commissary purchases.

“I lost about 15 pounds in there,” he remembers with a rueful laugh, going from about 165 to 150 pounds. Still, he seems unwilling to complain. “The meals didn’t quite fill you up; it was enough to sustain you. I was grateful I had it. It could have been worse,” he says now.

Nonetheless, during the first couple of weeks of that stay, Greg says he considered suicide. Statistics in the Disability Rights North Carolina report show that in 2017-18, 80% of jail suicides in the state occurred within the first 12 days of admission.

On Nov. 8, 2019, inmate Eric Grogan “injured himself in an apparent suicide attempt,” according to a news release from the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office. Transferred to Mission Hospital, Grogan died two days later. He’d been booked into the jail on Oct. 28 after being arrested on an extradition order from Georgia; the underlying charges weren’t immediately available. At the time of his injuries, Grogan had been incarcerated for 11 days.

The human connection

Walker, too, mentions the scanty portions, pointing out that some inmates don’t have the resources to supplement those meals with commissary snacks. But his greatest physical discomfort, he says, came from the cold air constantly blowing in his cell. “You have to make up your bed first thing in the morning before you come out for breakfast, and then you just got to lay there and be cold,” he explains.

Asked about the policy, Sarver said that while beds must be made when inmates leave their cells, they are free to be under the blanket when they’re in the cell, and they can request an additional blanket if needed.

Walker also struggled with the video visitation setup. Human beings, he says, “have a spirit in us and we have vibes that come off, and you want to feel that vibe. You can’t feel it over a screen. The screen may not be clear: It may be fuzzy, may be dark, may be anything. It’s already bad enough when it’s behind the glass, but at least I can see you.”

Video appearances before a judge are even worse, Walker maintains. Though he hasn’t had that experience himself, he’s been in the courtroom when others have, and he believes the technology places the incarcerated person at a severe disadvantage. For one thing, it’s easier for the judge to move on quickly to another case. “This and that, bond set, next,” says Walker, miming hanging up a phone. “You want to look somebody in the eye, you want them to feel your vibe, you want them to have some kind of empathy over you. … On that phone, it’s real cold.”

That’s just one example of how being in jail limits social contact and makes inmates feel less than human, he says. And although programming can offer welcome relief from being locked away in a cell, says Walker, it was seldom available to him. “Nine times out of 10, I knew that if they were having an AA meeting or an NA meeting that I probably wouldn’t be picked, because the people that had been there before me would probably end up being the ones that [officers] would pick first.”

Greg, too, stresses the importance of genuine human connection — and how keenly he felt the lack of it while in jail.

“If you have to be separated from the population, there still should be programs and human interaction,” he believes. “You still should be able to be part of something and process thoughts and feelings. Without processing stuff, I create this box in my head and I store it all in there. That’s my dwelling box: I just dwell on it and dwell on it and dwell on it. And that creates my depression, my anxiety, my anger.”

In addition to boosting the amount of available programming, the Sheriff’s Office says it has three social workers who evaluate inmates for behavioral and mental health needs; Greg, however, says he never saw any such person during his incarceration.

Limited options

Greg also says he wasn’t given any information about transitional resources for housing, food, employment or recovery prior to his release. He walked to Madison Avenue, where he remembered leaving his car, and was amazed to find that it hadn’t been towed. He retrieved $200 from a bank account that he’d been unable to access during his incarceration, bought a new battery and a tank of gas, and with nowhere else to turn, headed east toward home.

“So I go back to people I know are using, but then again, I know I can sleep at their house, they have some food,” he explains, adding, “It’s not a good place for me to be.”

After relapsing for about a year — “Things got bad, real bad,” Greg recalls — he woke up one morning and knew that something had to change. Borrowing a few dollars from his mom, he made his way back to Asheville and managed to reconnect with folks he’d met in recovery. That was in 2016, and he’s been clean ever since. Greg now works as a peer support specialist for people fighting addiction, helping others find the kind of connection he lacked for so long.

But if his own situation is now significantly better, Greg says he hears from other recovering addicts that things at the Buncombe County Jail remain much the same as what he experienced. “There are good corrections officers there; there are ones with a kind heart,” he notes. “I just think there needs to be more programming and support.”

Sarah Gayton, who recently transitioned from running the jail’s in-house programming to a newly created position overseeing community integration and the planned medication-assisted treatment initiative, says that two additional new staff positions will enable the facility to provide more of the kinds of services Greg believes are needed.

“Referrals will go to our new staff position, a case manager, who will connect them to resources and providers inside and out,” Gayton said at an Oct. 28 community event focused on local government agencies’ response to the opioid epidemic. “We have also hired a peer support specialist — someone who has lived through that hell and figured out how to step out of it. That person will work in the facility, but their primary focus will be working with those individuals on their release, to help them overcome barriers and the challenges reentry presents.”

Greg, meanwhile, sums it up this way: “Overall, jail is not a good place to be. I don’t care what jail you go to. Any time you get your freedom taken away and you get all the human connection taken away, it’s very detrimental to you.”

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About Virginia Daffron
Managing editor, lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

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One thought on “Life and hard times in the Buncombe County jail

  1. Angela

    My son is currently incarcerated awaiting trial. He has been in for 4 months. If I did not send him a little money each week, he would be hungry and cold. He has mentioned how horrible the food is, not really expecting it to be great since it is jail. However, it should be edible. He has had stomach issues and has been severely dehydrated to the point of fainting. Yet they will not take him for medical attention. They give him anti-diarrhea meds and put him back in his area. This has been going on for 2 months. Obviously, there is an issue that needs to be treated. His court appointed attorney is an immigration lawyer who has not spoken to him at all. The pre-trial counselors have been trying to find rehab or a halfway house. However, the attorney this week told them that he will not be pursuing pre-trial. It seems to me that he just wants to be done with the case and throw my son back on the street.

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