The Durham County jail lets inmates outside their cells for less time than surrounding counties, though some North Carolina jails have similar policies.
Inmates are housed in pods of 48 cells each, some of them with bunk beds. They have access to a dayoom four hours a day where they can eat, watch TV, play cards and make phone calls and use a recreation yard and showers.
The Chatham County jail allows inmates into the dayroom from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., except for brief periods after meals. Orange County provides about 19 hours’ access on weekdays and 20 on weekends; Person County, 10. Wake County allows inmates an average of 13 hours’ access to the dayroom.
These facilities differ in size. Wake County is the largest, with 1,580 beds – nearly three times Durham’s 576 cells – and a second building for problem inmates. Chatham, Orange and Person counties are comparable, with 110, 129, and 136 beds, respectively.
Never miss a local story.
Some North Carolina jails have comparable policies to Durham’s: New Hanover County jail, a 671-bed facility, allows inmates four hours of free time daily.
Guilford County’s 274-bed facility in High Point, one of three in the county, provides three hours daily. Lt. Johnnie Maynard, assistant division commander at Guilford County, said the High Point facility was intended to provide longer hours of freedom for its inmates. Administrators enacted the “semi-lockdown” after two “inmate riots” in the 1990s.
In Durham, critics of the jail’s restrictions say it is unfair to confine all due to the actions of a small segment of the mostly pre-trial inmate population. They also have complained about the food, medical services and confiscation of inmate mail and property.
Cynthia Fox, a member of the Inside-Outside alliance and mother of a current Durham County inmate, said the group seeks the recognition of “human rights.”
“They are answering to nobody,” Fox said of jail administrators. “These people haven’t been sentenced. This lock-down hasn’t done anything but enhance that (violent atmosphere).”
Durham defense attorney Alex Charns expressed similar concerns.
“It means something to be presumed innocent,” Charns said. “When you’re charged with a crime, it is no evidence of your guilt.”
Jennifer Blue, managing attorney for the Safe and Humane Jails project, said Durham’s measures are unfortunate but threats to safety justify restrictions on inmates’ rights. (The project is a branch of N.C. Prisoner Legal Services and funded by a nonprofit N.C. State Bar initiative.)
“I’m sad for the inmates, but it’s for their safety,” Blue said. “It’s legitimate, it’s legal, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it. We want inmates not to be restricted inappropriately, but we want them to be safe and not be assaulted by other inmates.”
North Carolina law requires that inmates be provided at least one hour’s access to the dayroom, three days per week, after two weeks of consecutive confinement. From the beginning of its restrictions in March, Durham was providing twice that: two hours, three days per week. Since then the jail has incrementally increased inmates time outside their cells to the current four hours a day.
Sharon Robertson, an attorney with N.C. Prisoner Legal Services, said sometimes inmates dominate or exploit others. Inmates with connections – inside or outside the jail – enjoy protections and privileges if the detention officer can’t maintain control over the housing unit. This compromises the safety of staff and inmates if unaddressed.
If a problem arises, standard disciplinary procedure is to lock all inmates into their cells until the offender can be secured and removed, before returning to normal hours.
The Durham County jail generally has one officer guarding a 48-cell pod. Some jails employ two officers per unit.
Eddie Lance, president of the N.C. Jail Administrators Association, said one officer is standard. Special response teams are called to emergencies as they are needed, and supervision increases for higher-security or special-needs inmates.
Maj. Glen Matayabas, director of Buncombe County jail, said “more staff does not necessarily mean better supervision.”
“We go with one officer (per housing unit) with the philosophy that the officer is the sole authority of that unit,” Matayabas said.
Makeshift weapons, fights between inmates and threats of kidnapping and violence caused Durham County jail officials to drastically reduce inmates’ freedom in early March to two hours, three days per week. Before that, inmates had 10 hours access to the dayroom daily.
In a July 9 report, Sheriff Mike Andrews said the first restriction “did cause an increase in distress to both inmates with and without mental illness.” He said the current schedule has improved conditions and that at no point was there an increase in suicide attempts or self-injury, as some of the jail’s critics had claimed.
Jail director Lt. Col. Natalie Perkins said the Durham County jail had “too many troublemakers” and not enough free pods to remove them for disciplinary action, making it necessary to lock all inmates, instead of a few, into their cells.
Andrews’ report said the jail does have designated disciplinary and administrative segregation housing units, but it is “not possible” to provide more lenient schedules for inmates who pose less safety risk. Inmates from different security classifications occupy the same pod, so all are confined consistently to avoid “confus(ing) personnel” and “foster(ing) unrest among detainees.”
Jim Stuit, member of the Durham County crime council, said gang affiliation – and spats between rival gangs – is a common problem for communities like Durham.
“Any time you have a jail in an urban population like Durham, you’re likely to have members of rival gangs incarcerated at the same time,” Stuit said.
County Commissioner Michael Page said the board of commissioners is confident in the management of the jail.
“We have the utmost confidence in what the Sheriff’s Office is telling us,” Page said. “We want to make sure the Sheriff’s Office is maintaining appropriate measures. ... We are inclined to the public ear and will investigate what concerns they have.”
The sheriff’s office said future policy changes will depend on the inmates’ improved behavior.
Dayroom access, by the numbers:
Chatham County: 110 beds; inmates in dayroom from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., except for brief periods after meals.
Granville County: no comparable county jail. Its cells are either linear- or dormitory- style.
Orange County: 129 beds; 19 hours daily during the week, 20 on weekends.
Person County: 136 beds; 10 hours daily.
Wake County jail: 1,580 beds and a separate building for problem inmates; average of 13 hours’ access to the dayroom.