In March, Sheriff Michael Andrews implemented an ongoing lockback inside the Durham County jail, with prisoners held in their cells for 24 to 48 hours at a time.
Prisoners used to be allowed out of their cells for at least six and a half hours per day, but under the lockback they have been allowed out first for six, then for eight hours per week, drastically reducing their time for exercise, showers, socializing, and contacting their loved ones and lawyers. There have been multiple, unreported suicide attempts since the lockback began.
On May 18, in direct response to weekly protests outside the jail, and continued resistance inside, the sheriff announced a daily two-hour “detainee walk schedule.” This piecemeal rollback of inhumane punishment practices is unacceptable. Sheriff Andrews professes that his “primary concern” is for the “safety of staff and detainees.” He claims the lockback measures “were implemented for the safety of all.”
We reject Sheriff Andrews’ understanding and practice of safety, and we invite others to do so with us. Safety does not look like extreme isolation; poor nutrition; medical neglect; unsanitary cells; restricted contact with loved ones; denial of reading materials; or lack of educational and vocational opportunities. These “safety measures” implemented by Sheriff Andrews and jail staff do not reduce violence. They create violence.
We believe safety comes from having meaningful connections to loved ones. We believe safety is generated when people are treated with dignity. We desire a Durham where safety looks like joy, interdependence, and mutual care, rather than walls, cages, and banishment. We dream of, and dare to struggle for a Durham where no one is treated as a criminal and no one person’s safety is dependent upon the exile of another, and we invite others to do so with us.
Toward that end:
▪ We demand an immediate end to the lockback: restore full recreational time for all inmates to at least what it was before March 6. Under no circumstances shall such collective punishment be meted out in the future.
▪ We want an independent investigation of the jail led by a team of doctors, lawyers, mental health providers, nutritionists, and Durham residents. These individuals should in no way be affiliated with the Sheriff’s Office, the county, or the city, and they should be guided in their investigation by their fields of expertise, by grievances filed by people inside, letters written by inmates about their conditions, and the demands stated here.
We want an end to medical abuse and neglect: all prisoners should have free, meaningful access to health care. This includes a timely response to health-related concerns, mental health services, and access to all prescribed medications.
▪ We demand that inmates have full access to writing and reading materials at all times. All prisoners should have access to pens, pencils, and paper, and a well-stocked library. They should be able to receive books mailed in by authorized publishers and book distributors.
▪ We want jail officials to uphold the right to religious freedom. All prisoners, regardless of their faith practices, have a constitutional right to religious freedom. Jail officials should in no way interfere with or limit this practice.
▪ We want all mail to be delivered to prisoners or properly returned. If a piece of mail is rejected, jail officials are required by law to return the mail to sender with a stated reason for return. Further, the intended recipient should be notified of the mail being returned to the sender, to allow the inmate to appeal the censorship.
▪ We demand an end to the extraction of fees from inmates and their families and friends. Prisoners should not have to pay for medical care or phone calls, nor should their loved ones be charged a convenience fee for paytel services or for adding money to prisoners’ canteen accounts.
▪ We want visitation to be flexible, accessible, and in person. Prisoners and their loved ones should be allowed face-to-face visits multiple times a week for at least 30 minutes. Loved ones should be able to schedule a visit via phone, in person, or online. We reject outright the planned implementation of video visitation at the jail.
▪ We want prisoners to have access to meaningful educational and vocational opportunities while in the jail. In order to avoid perpetuating a cycle of violence, the jail needs transformative activities for prisoners.
▪ We demand that inmates be spoken to and listened to with respect and that they take part in decision making as it relates to the conditions of their confinement. Inmates must be fully informed of all matters that affect them, both individually (e.g. court dates, visits, and transfers) and collectively (e.g. changes to policy) in a timely, consistent manner and in their native language. Further, pod councils should be formed in order so that inmates can play a part in decision making and the dissemination of information in the jail.
Further, with the clear goal of drastically reducing the jail population immediately, we make these demands:
▪ Abolish bail. Most of the 500-plus people locked inside the jail are pre-trial detainees and pose little to no flight risk. They, their families, and the community benefit from their being home, not in jail. Bail is a regressive penalty that disproportionately impacts people of color, low-income people, and people with mental illness.
▪ Prioritize the employment of formerly incarcerated and convicted people. Formerly incarcerated and convicted people face many barriers to employment. Durham County can take one meaningful step to alleviate this barrier by passing a policy that gives preference in county contracts to business that employ formerly incarcerated and convicted people.
We offer the above statement as a grouping of people who have come together around the lockback, but who understand the problems with the jail run deeper. Some of us are abolitionists, and make no bones about it. As such, we stand humbly in the great tradition of such people as Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips and John Brown. We also are family members of people in jail, and simply want better for our people. We are also community folks and formerly incarcerated people.
We make the above statement in the context of the present lockback conditions, and as a way to give voice to the desires expressed by people inside and outside frustrated with a system that provides little liberty or justice. The articulation of these desires should not be taken to be the sum total of what we want, now or in the future. Rather, we put them forward as merely a starting point, recognizing that a movement of many more people (especially including inmates themselves) will carry this statement well beyond what it is and perhaps into the realm of a truly emancipatory project. We embrace that prospect fully.
This was submitted by Cynthia P. Fox, Steve Lorenz, Meghan McDowell and others from Inside-Outside Alliance and friends and family members with loved ones in the Durham County jail.