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County agrees to pay $650K to mom after teen girl locked up in adult jail takes her own life inside cell

A North Carolina county has agreed to a preliminary settlement with the family of a 17-year-old girl who officials said took her own life in 2017 while jailed on murder charges.

Durham County is awaiting approval from the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina before they pay the family of Uniece Glenae Fennell $650,000 in light of wrongful death lawsuit they filed against the local police department. Fennell was booked into the Durham County Detention Facility in July 2016 on a drive-by murder charge and was found hanging in her cell on March 23, 2017, according to WTVD.

The lawsuit alleged Fennell “was regularly subjected to abuse by fellow inmates and jail staff.” Moreover, the late teen’s mother, Julia Graves, was skeptical that her daughter died by suicide, alleging she spoke with Fennell the day she died and she appeared happy and was laughing, according to WRAL.

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Citing public records and the wrongful death lawsuit, The News & Observer reported that Fennell was placed with adults in a jail that was rife with suicide hazards that officials knew about for 20 years. The newspaper, along with The Herald Sun, highlighted two significant hazards—window bars and ventilation grates—which were involved in 12 inmate suicides from 1998 to 2017.

An attorney for Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the organization representing Graves, told The Sun last summer that it would’ve cost the county “less than $100,000” to fix longstanding hazards at the detention facility.

An officer found Fennell hanging from a bed sheet tied to a call window bar at 2:48 a.m. WTVD reported that Fennell was last observed at 2:18 a.m., with the state Division of Health Service Regulation’s report asserting that an officer had previously spotted Fennell standing by her cell door each time they passed by.

“The record further indicated that during the 1 a.m. hour the officer received a telephone call from another Pod officer; and that the other officer stated they were informed by an inmate that the inmate was talking about hurting herself,” the report stated.

The report also noted that officers are to “directly observe” inmates who pose a danger to themselves at least four times an hour. The officer who heard about Fennell’s alleged intentions to harm herself only did two-and-a-half rounds during the 1 a.m. hour, claiming Fennell told her she was fine, the news station reported.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which manages the Division of Health Service Regulation, found the facility violated protocol when checking in on Fennell before her suicide. According to WTVD, their findings resulted in the implementation of electronic logs to document or detail missed check-ins.

In addition to the monetary settlement to Fennell’s family, WRAL reported that the county is slated to make the following changes:

  • Removal of all known suicide hazards at the Durham County Detention Facility by the end of 2019
  • Ending the cohabitation of jailed juveniles and adults by expanding the Durham County Youth Home (or another reasonable option)
  • Compulsory Crisis Intervention training for detention officers and the hiring of a Licensed Clinical Social Worker
  • Prioritizing space at the Durham County Youth Home for Durham County juveniles; and
  • Parent/guardian notification when juveniles experience a life-threatening medical condition or attempt suicide

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[Featured image: Uniece Glenae Fennell/WRAL]