County Sheriff Mike Andrews on Friday acknowledged a decision to confine Durham County jail inmates to their cells all but six hours a week, citing a rise in jail violence and direct threats against guards.
In a one-page statement, Andrews said the jail is not in “lock back,” as a group of inmates’ relatives and the jail director called it in interviews earlier this week.
Instead, he said, the jail has implemented a “modified detainee walk schedule,” which limits the number of inmates allowed in the common area of each of the jail’s 48-cell pods at any one time.
Andrews’ description of the procedure – in which small groups are released from their cells for two hours every other day – mirrors what the inmates’ relatives and jail director described. He did say the number of cells being opened at any one time has increased from six to eight “as the detainees demonstrate they are willing to conform their behavior.” Most cells house one inmate; some cells have bunk beds.
The sheriff’s statement does not say how “lock back” differs from the “modified walk schedule.” Multiple efforts to reach the sheriff’s office for follow-up comment Friday were unsuccessful.
But Andrews’ statement and jail director Lt. Col. Natalie Perkins, in previous interviews, noted that state law requires releasing inmates from their cells only one hour at a time three days a week. Even under the current procedure, Durham inmates are getting twice what the state says is necessary, they said.
Perkins, jail director since 2006, said she has never seen this level of violence.
“We’ve had inmates come to tell us (other inmates are) planning to take an officer hostage,” she said Thursday.
“I’ve never seen Bloods and Crips come together, but that’s what was happening,” she continued. “They’re targeting officers to do harm, and threats like that I can’t let go unnoticed.”
The confinement situation has drawn criticism and questions.
A group of inmates’ relatives planned to protest the confinement rules outside the jail Friday night, calling the situation inhumane.
The public defender’s office is looking at the situation, and a UNC expert on prison isolation says restricting inmates’ interaction could possibly harm those who already have mental health problems.
Public Defender Lawrence Campbell said his office has started talking with jail administrators and reviewing state rules.
“The jail is caught in a Catch-22 situation trying to protect individuals, and this is what they have come up with,” Campbell said. “I don’t know if this is the best situation.”
UNC law professor Deborah Weissman said the procedure unfairly punishes the entire jail population for the actions of a smaller group of inmates. Weissman supervised students who released a report last year equating the practice of solitary confinement with torture.
What’s happening in the Durham County jail is not the same thing as prison isolation, Weissman said in an interview Thursday. “But we know the practice of isolating prisoners is overused,” she said.
“Not allowing them to have sufficient human interaction exacerbates existing mental health problems,” she said. “It does not reduce violence. ... At the end of the day, these are people who are presumed innocent. The more they are deprived of the opportunity to engage in human interaction, they’re going to deteriorate.”
Instead of locking all inmates in their cells, the jail should determine who needs to be confined, Weissman said.
“Just ask yourself what it would be like if you were locked in a space no bigger than a parking space,” she said.
Perkins said there is a big difference between solitary confinement and what the jail is doing. The jail cells have windows, for example, and inmates regularly watch TV through the window and shout at each other through the doors.
There are also just too many dangerous inmates and not enough space to segregate them, Perkins said in interviews Wednesday and Thursday. She does not know when the restrictions will end, she said.
“There’s 500-plus folks (in jail),” she said. “I know probably at least 100 are troublemakers. You’ve got people who just don’t care.”
What the state law says
“After the fourteenth consecutive day of confinement, each inmate shall be provided opportunities for physical exercise at least three days weekly for a period of one hour each of the days. Physical exercise shall take place either in the confinement unit if it provides adequate space or in a separate area of the jail that provides adequate space. The opportunity for physical exercise shall be documented.”