The Durham County Detention Facility, part of the Sheriff's Office, has a lot going on these days besides the 24/7 responsibility to safely and properly house the roughly 500 detainees routinely in its charge.
There have been protests outside its doors relating to the treatment of detainees, conditions inside the jail, and deaths in custody.
Recently, we received an update on one of those deaths: Matthew Lamont McCain, 29, was discovered unresponsive in his cell Jan. 19. The sheriff’s office is now awaiting the final autopsy report to complete its own investigation.
A state probe found one deficiency in the time windows of security rounds, but the problems reportedly did not occur during the immediate window when McCain was last observed and then found.
In December, two female officers were fired for using excessive force with a detainee on Sept. 27, 2015. They were also criminally charged, as was the detainee.
A flurry of news stories in 2015 covered inmates’ reduced hours outside their cells due to safety concerns.
Sheriff Mike Andrews has requested an independent inspection of the detention facility by the National Institute of Corrections.
To get a better picture of what’s going on inside, I requested and received three months of detainee incident reports pursuant to state public records law.
I also asked for copies of detention “use of force” reports for the same three months involving officers at the facility. However, spokeswoman Tamara Gibbs told me such reports usually become part of the personnel record “because they often involve an evaluation of an employee’s performance.”
In turn, those reports are generally not public. That’s troubling.
The incident reports I reviewed consist mostly of sparse summaries, along with dates and detainee names. I examined September and November, 2015 and January, 2016.
Nearly every day in a month brings at least one detainee incident. In September there were 39 detainee incidents. November, 26 incidents. January of this year, 42 incidents. That totals 107 incidents.
By my count, 22 incidents involved more than one detainee. Most in the data are male.
I was surprised to see only one mention of a contraband, recreational controlled substance in the records. Cocaine, found Jan. 6.
There were five other incidents that day or night, including one involving a detainee who “threw urine” at another detainee. The six reported incidents on Jan. 6 were the highest count on any single day.
Over the three months, there were five detainees placed on suicide watch.These include a male detainee, “Found tying blanket up to sinck (sic).” Another male detainee was shown as having, “Attempted suicide/rolled off railing/hit floor…”
Another detainee, “Self inflicted a pencil in left side of abdomen,” and was taken to a hospital.
I thought I’d see more than the three incidents (all from September) that involved detainees with items that might be considered weapons. One, a “pencil sharpened with metal attached.” Another, a “Shank and pencil sharpened to a sharp point.” A third, a “Metal strip.”
On Nov. 2, there was an “assault on officer by throwing tray on face.” In six incidents, overall, detainees were reported “threatening” detention officers.
Sixteen times, detainees were written up as “insolent” toward staff or personnel.
I counted 39 “Failure to comply” incidents.
In the three months, here were 11 “physical altercations” or “assaults,” apparently between detainees. On Nov. 6, a physical altercation involved six female detainees. One was reported to “throw a chair” and injure two others. All received medical attention.
I tallied 11 incidents on the lists that pointed to detainees getting medical attention. There were seven cases of “interfering with security” or “tampering” with locking devices or refusal to “lock back.”
Based on my study, it appears the most serious incidents are not reflected (including the September event that led to the employee firings), those that prompt use of force by staff. Those details usually end up in personnel files, it seems, thus shielded from scrutiny.
I think it is vital for the Durham community to know a lot more about the authorities’ use of force at the jail. As it stands now, we know next to nothing.
You can reach Tom Gasparoli at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-219-0042.