ACLU questions sheriffs about following jail law

Apr. 03, 2014 @ 08:49 PM

To ensure local jails are in compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina is seeking information from several North Carolina sheriff’s offices, including Lee, Chatham, Harnett and Moore.

The ACLU-NC began sending letters to all of North Carolina’s local sheriff’s offices in January, and sent follow-up requests this week, to find out how area jails are complying with federal PREA guidelines. Congress approved the PREA bill in 2003, and in 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice released guidelines for following the law — which is meant to reduce the number of sexual assaults in prisons.

One of PREA’s mandates states that inmates under the age of 18 be housed separately from adults. This is an area of interest, according to ACLU-NC Policy Director Sarah Preston, because 16 and 17 year olds are treated as adults in the North Carolina criminal system.

The Lee County Sheriff’s Office told the ACLU that it is working on new policies, with the assistance of the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association, to comply with the federal guidelines.

“But we already have policies and procedures in place that protect our young inmates,” said Lee County Sheriff Tracy Carter.

Lee County is using the state’s guidelines for segregating young prisoners from older prisoners and females from males, and the sheriff would welcome any input from the ACLU with regard to developing these new compliance standards, according to a letter sent to the ACLU by Lee County Attorney Neil Yarborough. 

In a press statement released Wednesday night, Chatham County Sheriff Richard Webster said the county anticipates being in full PREA compliance.

“The current Chatham County Jail’s physical structure is small and antiquate, and does not allow us to achieve full compliance,” according to the release. “A new jail is under construction and over 50 percent complete. It is scheduled to open later this year.”

Chatham County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Doug Stewart said these regulations “are a whole new world for a lot of the detention centers,” and the sheriff’s office is limited by its 32-year-old facility. The new 60,000-square-foot jail site is located on Renaissance Drive in Pittsboro.

The Harnett County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to the ACLU’s request, and the Moore County Sheriff’s Office did not send any records but did invite ACLU representatives to visit the facility and review its procedures. Preston said the ACLU does intend to investigate.

“What we are hoping is that many of these counties who may not have been aware of the guidelines, and have now been put on notice, will take some action to comply with PREA,” Preston said.