RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A newspaper investigation shows that 51 inmates died in North Carolina county jails over five years when they were left unsupervised for longer than state regulations allow.

The News & Observer of Raleigh analyzed state records and found that the deaths were in 38 different jails, in urban and rural areas. The deaths occurred over the five-year period through 2016.

Under state regulations, detention officers are required to check on jail inmates at least twice an hour. If inmates are mentally ill or suicidal, checks must be done four times an hour. Those checks are to be documented.

Inmates considered a suicide risk must be in cells clear of items that could be used to kill themselves.

In 2013, Durham County inmate Terry Demetrius Lee, 21, hanged himself on window bars after he had been left alone in a cell for nearly six hours, the newspaper reported, citing electronic records of officers' rounds.

A state investigation found that Lee had a history of mental illness and should have been watched more frequently. The detention officer who was supposed to observe Lee was fired.

Sheriffs and jail administrators told the newspaper that keeping inmates safe is a high priority.

'We're not insensitive people," said Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews. "We all have families and we all have loved ones and have had those we know that have been incarcerated. So I don't want anything to happen to anybody, and neither do the men and women who work here in this facility."

The sheriff said that he's taken measures to make cells safer in the past five years, including removing window bars of the type that Lee used to hang himself.

An expert on jail and prison security who has served as a court-appointed monitor, Jeffrey Schwartz, said the number of deaths indicates a potentially larger problem in jail supervision.

When detention officers don't follow supervision regulations, he said, "they are putting inmates at risk, and it's a life or death matter."

North Carolina' 113 jails, which are overseen by sheriffs, house about 24,000 inmates at any given time.

It's up to sheriffs to determine proper staffing levels for the jails. Some sheriffs have asked their county commissions for more money to pay detention officers, or better-designed jails.

State officials say there's not a statewide standard for jail staffing levels. But state investigations have shown that some jails were understaffed or overcrowded.

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Information from: The News & Observer, http://www.newsobserver.com