Durham News

5 arrested at Durham County commissioners meeting over jail protest

A Duke University math professor, a youth pastor and three divinity students were arrested Monday night after a group of advocates for jail inmates interrupted the Durham County commissioners meeting.

Rann Bar-On, a Duke math professor, Joe Stapleton, 27, a youth pastor at Cornerstone Community Church, and divinity students Greg Williams, 27, Le’Andre Blakeney and Mia Hutchins-Cabibi were charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and inciting a riot, all misdemeanors. They were released from the jail Monday night.

The meeting started with Chairwoman Wendy Jacob’s state of the county address. But as she started to speak, members of the Inside-Outside Alliance started reading inmates’ letters outlining concerns about the Sheriff’s Office using video visitation.

Before the meeting, about 20 alliance members sat scattered throughout the commissioners’ chambers. As Jacobs started her speech, they started standing and reading letters. As one finished, another started.

The first woman was dragged out of the room by deputies, but others were walked out when they finished.

Jacobs stopped her speech and tried to explain that protesters could speak during a future public hearing. Jacobs then moved away from the podium as protesters continued to stand and read letters.

The protest remained peaceful until everyone had been escorted into the lobby outside of the chambers. In a scuffle between deputies and protesters, protester Greg Williams ended up on the ground.

One man asked for a deputy’s name and badge number, and words were exchanged. That man was arrested. Protesters started to chant “Let him go,” and eventually stopped. Sheriff’s Maj. Paul Martin warned that protesters who didn’t leave would be arrested. Shortly thereafter, he blocked the door and called for some of the protesters to be arrested.

Martin said he asked the protesters to leave multiple times before they were arrested.

Visits by video

Monday’s protest centered on concerns about the Sheriff’s Office bringing video visitation to the jail, but the Inside-Outside Alliance has been protesting jail conditions relating to food, health care and other concerns for more than two years.

The Sheriff’s Office plans to launch a pilot video visitation program, in which inmates would meet with visitors via a monitor in the jail’s lobby, in the summer.

Under the current system, visitors talk with inmates through Plexiglas for 20 minutes.

Sheriff Mike Andrews plans to use a hybrid approach that will include both video and in-person visitation while he evaluates the program, spokesman Brian Jones wrote in an email.

“Based on the agency’s observations, the functionality of the program and user response, Sheriff Andrews will make adjustments to visitation, if necessary,” Jones wrote.

“It’s not really visiting. It’s a glorified phone call,” alliance member Joe Stapleton said before the meeting.

Stapleton, who was one of the five arrested, said they planned a protest after unsuccessfully seeking to get on the commissioners’ agenda.

The Inside-Outside Alliance is concerned that the jail will eventually go to video-only visitation as it says most other county jails do when they install video visitation, Stapleton said.

The Sheriff’s Office is working on the details on how the system would work, Jones said. Video visitation would increase the days and times people could visit, allow longer visits and make it safer for staff, Jones wrote.

Calls and emails

In general, the county commissioners have no direct control of the Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, beyond approving the flow of county money to the agency.

Jacobs and other commissioners, however, do not support the jail moving to only video visitation, Jacobs said before the meeting.

Commissioners would be concerned about the impact of detainees and their families, she said. They would also have concerns about how the change would affect detainees’ behavior and ultimately the staff.

Jacobs has received about 100 phone calls and emails about the video visitation in the past two weeks, she said. Jacobs followed up with Andrews and was told that video visitation would be a future option but he wasn’t ending in-person visitation.

In a press release, the Inside-Outside Alliance contended that the county would need to vote to renew a contract with the company that would provide video visitation. Jones said the contract is up for renewal in 2020 but doesn’t require commissioner approval.

A city of Durham advisory board, the Human Relations Commission, recommended shelving video visitation among other recommendations in a report on the jail it adopted in January.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges

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