Durham News

Durham forum draws complaints about jail staff, conditions

Maj. Paul Martin spent much of a two-hour forum on the Durham County jail Thursday night defending the Sheriff’s Office against criticism of the detention officers, the jail’s private vendors and the justice system

“I did not come here to get set up, and that is what it feels like,” Martin said.

Former inmates and their advocates complained in person, while current detainees sent letters to the forum criticizing the jail’s food, the guards’ treatment of inmates and the costs of using the telephone, buying food in the commissary and seeking medical treatment.

One former inmate compared the Sheriff’s Office to the Ku Klux Klan

“I heard some people say if you want to join the Klan you go and join the sheriff’s department because they lock us up,” said Vincent Paige, a black man who said he spent nine months in the jail for not paying child support.

Martin’s response was immediate.

“I resent your racial profiling of me because I am a black man who actually had the Ku Klux Klan burn a cross in my yard 33 years ago,” Martin said.

The tense back and forth was one of many at the Human Relations Commission forum. Martin said many of the complaints were “overblown” and “distorted” the truth. He also said concerns about laws, bail and court costs had to do with the larger judicial system.

The commission held the forum in response to concerns previously expressed about the jail. Those concerns led Sheriff Mike Andrews to ask the National Institute of Corrections to inspect the jail last year.

County officials also recently hired a new vendor to prepare meals and funded 10 new detention officers for a dedicated mental health pod in the jail, along with funding other expanded mental health services and pre-trial services.

People at the forum said the inspection and changes haven’t addressed their concerns.

The panel included Martin; Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey; Umar Muhammad, a community organizer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice; and Cynthia Fox, a member of The Inside-Outside Alliance, a group of family members and other that has been protesting jail conditions for more than two years.

About 73 percent of the roughly 500 jail inmates are awaiting trial, Morey said.

Between June and July, about 947 people came in contact with the jail, Muhammad said. Most had bails less than $5,000. About 74 percent were black, and 24 percent where white. About 78 percent of the detainees were male.

Fees for medical visits, using the telephone and the commissary are set by private vendors, Martin said.

“The Durham county jail does not generate any funds from any of this,” he said, but works to choose the best company out of what is offered.

“Your problem is with the system not the Durham County jail,” he said.

Muhammad said it is important to raise awareness about values.

“So when you see how much money is being put into detaining our community versus our education or our mental health system, that says a lot about the people in power,” he said. “That says a lot about the people who we voted for, about structural institutional racism and white supremacy.”

Other concerns expressed in inmates’ letters written indicated they felt disrespected and mistreated.

“They treat us as if we are all guilty of the crime we are charged with and not like humans,” according to one letter read by moderator Yolanda Keith, a member of the Human Relations Commission.

Fox said the majority of detention officers are unprofessional, degrade the inmates and don’t know how to respond to them.

“I vigorously disagree with that assessment,” Martin said. “It is totally inaccurate. It is not what happens in the Durham County jail.”

About 100 of the detention officers have had crisis intervention training, Martin said. A letter written by an inmate doesn’t prove this type of activity by a detention officer.

“We have hundreds of letters,” Fox said.

“Just because someone wrote a letter doesn’t make it true,” Martin said.

If someone is charged with domestic violence and comes to the jail with an attitude, detention officers have to assert some control, he said.

“Just don’t paint detention officers as horrible people,” he said. “I know what the culture in the jail is, and it is not what you are describing.”

Martin understands there is frustration with the criminal justice system, which in some cases he shares. He doesn’t agree with locking people up because they can’t pay child support or fines, he said.

“But you can’t have it all one way,” he said. “Don’t get in a fight with someone and call the cops and blame the cops and the jail because they get arrested. Don’t tell me you don’t have some personal responsibility and shoot in the house 30 times, and shoot an old woman and she loses her leg. There is some personal responsibility. And you are refusing to talk about it.”

At the end of the conversation, Morey said, “This is Durham.

“This is who we are. We get in vigorous discussion and topics, but it is worth it, and we have got to keep doing it. And we have got to come together,” she said. “The bottom line is you have got to understand, take time, listen and, most of all, care.”

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges

What’s next:

The 15-member Durham Human Relations Commission holds forums, workshops, conferences and other activities to improve relations among the people in the city. The commission plans to discuss the concerns about the jail at its 7 p.m. Oct. 4 meeting and possibly make recommendations to the City Council. For the most part, the jail is funded and run by Durham County. The meeting will be held in the Neighborhood Improvement Services Department’s conference Room, on the third floor of Golden Belt building No. 2, at 807 E. Main St., Suite 2-300.