Protesters demand an investigation into the Durham County jail | Durham County | Indy Week
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Protesters demand an investigation into the Durham County jail 

Durham County jail

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Durham County jail

The top bunk is ideal for stretching out your orange, jail-issued jumper to dry in the fleeting sunlight after you wash the garment in the toilet. Given that prisoners at the Durham County Detention Center don't have washing facilities for the two outfits they're given when jailed, this humiliating ritual is sometimes the only option.

"It was hell," says Rick Alston, 36, who spent more than a month behind bars this year for a probation violation. "I wouldn't put anyone through that."

His stay in the county jail—which mostly houses prisoners awaiting trial—came during the facility's controversial seven-month "lockback," a crackdown ordered by Sheriff Mike Andrews in early March that, at its worst, confined detainees to their cells for all but two hours a day, every other day.

Andrews said he was responding to gang threats and increased violence in the jail, which housed 487 prisoners as of last week. It was a necessary measure, he argued.

Perhaps, but Alston remembers the sheer humiliation of the toilet scrubs, and how he was forced to use a small sink to bathe himself when he was confined to his cell. He says he spent each day lying on the top bunk, gazing out the window. The guards, he says, mocked prisoners and ignored detainees with mental illness.

"Fuck them Confederate bastards down there at the jailhouse," he says. "They treat you like slaves."

The allegedly unsanitary conditions are just one of many complaints lobbed these days at the detention center, a draconian frown of a building that, for the past year, has been beset weekly by protesters demanding reform.

When the protests began this spring, at the onset of the lockback, only a handful were in attendance. But last Thursday, the movement seemed to be gaining momentum.

More than three dozen gathered, holding handmade signs and banging drums. One sign read, "We believe the prisoners." Above, on multiple floors of the spare, stone building, orange-clad detainees huddled at clouded, barred windows, waving down at protesters.

One of the protesters, Rafiq Zaidi of Durham, waved back, then urged on a pair of activists clattering on homemade drums. Bang loud enough to be heard at the opulent Durham Performing Arts Center across the street, he told them. "Let it affect sales for The Lion King. They'll jump then."

This protest came just three days after two Durham detention officers were accused of pinning down a handcuffed prisoner and beating her in the head with closed fists.

Although the prisoner acknowledged starting the scuffle, officers Anita Louise Alston (no relation to Rick) and Rachel L. Smith were both fired and charged with assault and misdemeanor obstruction of justice, according to the Durham County Sheriff's Office, which oversees the facility.

(The INDY has requested a report of the incident from the sheriff's office, but spokeswoman Tamara Gibbs said this week that her office would not be able to turn over any information, as the case was being investigated by the District Attorney's office.)

"Detention Officers work in a very difficult and complex environment," Andrews said in a statement. "Many times they work in a Pod and supervise 50 or more persons, some of whom are hostile and suffer from mental difficulties. It is important that detention officers follow Sheriff's Office guidelines when interacting with the inmate population."

This altercation, which took place in September, was an isolated, momentary lapse, the sheriff's office says. But for the protesters, it was affirmation that something is awry at Durham's county jail.

"Folks in Durham are required to treat their pets better than we treat folks here," says newly elected Durham City Councilwoman Jillian Johnson, who joined last week's protest.

For months, prisoners' rights advocates have complained about conditions within the county jail, the alleged abuse by guards and the long hours prisoners were sequestered in their cold cells, all in a facility that primarily houses pre-trial defendants who haven't been convicted of anything.

Andrews, citing improving conditions, ended the lockback in October.

But protesters say it's not enough. Last week, they announced the formation of a "jail investigation team," made up of prisoners' rights advocates and past inmates and their family members. The group is demanding a full inspection of the jail, including its medical care, dining facilities, cells and showers, as well as in-person visits with at least 100 inmates to administer a survey.

Protesters are also calling for monthly revenue reports from the jail's contracted medical, phone and food vendors—whom they've accused of bilking prisoners with unfair prices, such as $11 for a care-package cheeseburger—and all guard-inmate grievance reports filed in the jail. (The INDY requested those reports, too. The sheriff's office was unable to produce them by press time).

The group says county-contracted services at the jail, provided by companies like the Pennsylvania-based food distributor Aramark, take advantage of the detainees, relying on unpaid prisoners working in the cafeteria without pay.

Additionally, prisoners in need of medical or mental health services say their requests for assistance often go unanswered. If a response does come, protesters say, inmates receive a short visit from a doctor, which typically ends with the doctor offering a $20 tablet of Tylenol. Prisoners who can't pay are offered nothing.

In addition, activists point out, this year county officials agreed to a $2 million budget increase for the facility at Andrews' request, in part to help make jail cells "suicide-resistant," although no additional funds were allotted for mental health treatment.

The sheriff's office points out that prisoners' mental health is governed by the Durham County Department of Public Health, not the DCSO.

Protesters counter that mental health was especially important during the lockback, and that is the DCSO's responsibility. Although county jail inmates typically share cells and state law only mandates that prisoners be allowed out of their cells for one hour at a time at least three days a week, activists likened the lockback to solitary confinement, a controversial practice often associated with deteriorating mental health.

Prisoners, including Alston, say they witnessed multiple suicide attempts in the jail, with detainees leaping from a second-floor railing. Jail officials reported 12 suicide attempts at the detention center this year. None were successful.

Councilwoman Johnson says the allegations at the jail, if true, are a fundamental violation of the principle of "innocent until proven guilty."

On Friday, Durham County Board of Commissioners Chairman Michael Page told the INDY he would propose an investigation of the jail to his board in the coming weeks, although he declined to say who would lead such a probe.

"We have not been able to determine any wrongdoing," Page says. "But we have to talk seriously about an independent investigation."

Still, Page stops short of openly criticizing Andrews' office. "I have no reason to believe [the sheriff's office is] not telling us what is going on over there," he says. "And this is not a Hilton. It's not an Embassy Suite hotel. This is a jail."

Andrews' office, however, has been relatively quiet. The sheriff would not agree to an interview last week, but in a statement, Andrews pointed out the facility is subject to multiple scheduled inspections each year by state and federal officials.

Andrews also said he has requested a "thorough inspection" of the jail early next year by the National Institute of Corrections, a federal agency under the U.S. Department of Justice. He added that the Department of Public Health will also investigate the nutritional value of jail meals.

"This is a difficult season for our community as it works to address violent crime," Andrews said in a statement. "The incarcerated are my responsibility. I would encourage the community to join me and other law enforcement agencies in our fight to prevent such crime and to eliminate the need for detention facilities."

Andrews' office did not say, however, whether it would allow protesters and activists to inspect the detention center.

Umar Muhammad, a community organizer for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, says Durham residents are right to be concerned about the jail.

"There are brothers and sisters here who need us," Muhammad says. "People take a plea bargain so they can hurry up and get to the state pen, just so they can get some salt and pepper."

Durham resident Cynthia Fox, whose son spent more than a year in the jail on robbery charges for which he was later convicted, says her son told her of filthy, unkempt cells, unwashed showers and verbally abusive guards.

Fox chides local leaders and law enforcement for failing to take any action despite months of public protests. "The sheriff and county commissioners have shown that they don't believe prisoners," Fox says. "We do."

Durham resident Deborah Chapman says she had a similar experience in the detention center in 2006, when she was held for seven months on assault charges. Detention officers, she says, scoffed at prisoners and were overly aggressive during altercations.

"They come in ready to attack like they're attacking animals," Chapman says.

Chapman recalls the unwashed prison jumpers, too. "I remember women walking around with bloodstains on their clothes."

But what Alston remembers most is the feeling. He says the Durham County Detention Center changed him, and not for the better.

"It makes you feel like a pit bull being trained to kill," he says. "People talk to you. I don't care if it's your mother, a guard or the president of the United States. I don't care what the fuck someone's saying. You just want to attack them."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Insult and injury"

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