By Lyle C. May
In 2015, 40 people died in North Carolina’s county jails. In 2018, the number grew to 44 jail deaths, then 46 in 2019.1 Half of those deaths were suicides. The other people died of overdoses, “natural causes,” or violent assaults by other incarcerated people or staff. It would be easy to blame the high rate of pre-pandemic jail deaths on supervision failures, understaffing, and a deinstitutionalized mental health system that pushes people with mental health conditions into homelessness. But this does not explain the lengths public officials go to obscure in-custody deaths. In my experience, there is a simple reason for this: cultural brutality.
The first indication deputies enjoy tormenting incarcerated people occurred several weeks after my arrest in July 1997. I had been charged in a double homicide and housed on the fourth floor of the Buncombe County Jail, a segregation block for people charged with capital murder, people who present security risks, and people with serious mental illness.
Juan, a Mexican man in the cell beside mine, refused to shower. His English consisted of “No” and “Yes,” which irked two deputies in particular. They taunted Juan. “Come on, Señor Mexico—why you no bathe? Wash your tomato-pickin’ ass! What’sa matter? They have no soap where you from?” In the middle of the night, deputies kicked Juan’s door or swore at him in mock Spanglish. Sometimes they didn’t bother to feed him, and one of us would slip Juan food during the day.
After two weeks of harassment and threats to use a fire hose, the deputies did so. They came in after breakfast, one dragging the hose while the other opened food slot on Juan’s cell door. “Last chance, Mexico.” No response. “All right then. Let’s make you spic-and-span.” Water blasted from the nozzle of the fire hose into Juan’s cell. The two deputies hired to serve and protect hooted and laughed as Juan shouted incoherently. Water poured from beneath his door and into the surrounding cells. This lasted several minutes before the deputies left, high-fiving each other. Juan could be heard sobbing and talking to himself in Spanish.
This type of mistreatment was not uncommon in the jail. Local people experiencing homelessness were frequently criminalized by law enforcement. They often cycled in and out of the jail. One person in particular was a regular on our block. Fireball was an emaciated light-skinned Black man with vitiligo that left patches of pink all over his body, and his face and throat were badly scarred. He claimed, at the top of his raspy voice, that a lit cigarette ignited a gas can he had been huffing. It blew up in his face, setting his hair and beard on fire before it could be put out.
Fireball cursed everyone for everything. When the deputies retaliated by “forgetting” his food tray or refusing to open his door for showers, Fireball flooded his cell. When four deputies came in and saw the water, they opened Fireball’s door and went in swinging. We could hear them beat him, the heavy thuds of fist, boot, and baton punctuated by shouts, then screams. It would be days before we heard Fireball again.
The inhumanities of jail took a toll on me, as well. After 14 months of solitary confinement prior to my capital trial, I lost my tenuous grip on sanity and attempted suicide. Between the light and noise, as well as my internal mental racket while facing a potential death sentence, I didn’t know how to cope with the sense of despair that was my constant companion. One evening after count, I tied a bedsheet to a bar over the window. Because it was so high, I stood on my rolled-up mattress and tied a slipknot around my neck. Taking a deep breath, I kicked the mattress over. I swung back and forth, bare feet flailing against the wall as I hung. Then the sheet ripped and dropped me to the metal bunk where I lay massaging my burning throat.
Determined to die, the next day when my door opened for shower time, I climbed the stairs to the second tier, got on top of the rail, and jumped. In that 25-foot drop, survival instincts forced my hands and feet out before I hit the concrete floor in an awkward sprawl. The immense pain stunned me. The shame and defeat burned my eyes with tears. When deputies came for me, I could only cry, “I didn’t make it.”
The deputies punished my failure because it caused paperwork, and I was around to be punished. A brief trip to the hospital for X-rays found I broke my wrist. The nurses splinted it then sent me back. Upon my return to the jail, deputies stripped me naked and shackled my ankle to a bunk in an empty cell. It would be hours before a paper gown slid beneath my door, my only covering for the next three weeks. Whenever I came out for a shower or to use the phone, it was in handcuffs or shackles. When the deputy watching me had to leave for some errand, I was shackled to a table.
There were other violent incidents at the county jail: noisy people were maced or beaten, some were extracted from their cells with a shock shield (an inverted shield with twin taser prongs) or placed in a restraint chair that can be described only as torture. But these seemed like ordinary work for deputies. Not much has changed since I left jail for prison.
Many years later, in 2019, John Neville discovered the same ordinary injustices at the Forsyth County Jail.
Neville was in jail on assault charges. About a month into his confinement, he experienced what seemed to be a seizure. When deputies responded to his medical emergency, instead of providing help, they placed Neville in “prone restraint,” a technique similar to the one that would later kill George Floyd. Neville went into cardiac arrest as a result of “positional and compressional asphyxia.” Like Floyd, Neville told deputies numerous times that he couldn’t breathe. Unlike Floyd, when it became obvious Neville was dying, deputies rushed him to the hospital, where he later died. Five former sheriff’s deputies and a nurse face involuntary manslaughter charges.
The state Department of Health and Human Services originally classified Neville’s death as out of custody, and it went unreported—even to the court handling Neville’s case, which issued a failure to appear warrant when he missed a court date after his death. Though North Carolina law requires the timely disclosure of ”the death of any person who is detained, under arrest, or is in the process of being arrested, is en route to be incarcerated, or is incarcerated at a municipal or county jail,” it does not specify reporting and investigation requirements for deaths that occur outside the physical space of jails.2 As a result, only some sheriffs independently require jail staff to file reports when people in custody die after they’ve been transported to a hospital. This loophole can explain why Forsyth County jailers requested changes to Neville’s bond terms to allow for his release to the hospital after his “medical incident.” When the State Bureau of Investigation looked into Neville’s death, the assistant county attorney claimed it happened out of custody.
Except it did not. Neville’s actual cause, and place, of death were exposed only after a tooth-and-nail litigatory battle over video of the incident. Jails are dangerous places even with cameras, laws, and people sworn to serve and protect. Holding abusive, unnecessarily aggressive, and negligent jail staff accountable does nothing to prevent in-custody homicides like these from happening again. Accountability of law enforcement protected by qualified immunity is only as good as the district attorneys willing to press charges and root out bad actors. The pandemic demonstrated a more sweeping solution: if having fewer people in jail made it harder to spread COVID-19 among a vulnerable population, the same would hold true for law enforcement brutality and in-custody deaths. Fewer people in pretrial detention means fewer unnecessary deaths. It’s simple math.
Lyle C. May is a prison journalist, abolitionist, Ohio university alum, and member of the Alpha Sigma Lambda honor society. Originally published by Vera Institute of Justice.