A surge in violence has the Durham County jail on “lock back,” with inmates confined to their cells all but six hours a week.
A group of inmates’ family members and others say they plan to protest the lock back Friday night outside the downtown jail. They feel the treatment of the inmates, most of whom are awaiting trial, is inhumane.
But the jail director said fights between inmates, as well as threats and attacks on guards that in some cases have required stitches, have forced the jail administration to act.
“We’re having a lot of gang fights or inmates jumping other inmates,” said Lt. Col. Natalie Perkins, the detention director. “It’s gotten to the point where Bloods are fighting Bloods, Crips are fighting Crips. It’s gotten that bad.”
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Guards have found several improvised weapons, she said. In some cases, inmates are “tearing apart beds and filing (parts) down on concrete to make a weapon.”
The Durham County jail opened in 1996 with 576 single cells. Since then, 160 bunk beds have been added to boost capacity to 736.
Inmates live in “pods” of 48 cells that open onto a dayroom where they can watch TV or play cards, among other activities. One guard is stationed in each pod to oversee as many as 60 inmates at a time, Perkins said.
Inmates used to have access to the dayroom for several hours at a time several times a day.
Since the lock back began four to six weeks ago, the jail has been letting small groups of inmates out for two hours every other day, Perkins said.
That’s double the one hour, three times a week, the state requires, she said.
But Cynthia Fox says the lock back is unfair to inmates, most of whom should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Her son is charged with murder, she said.
“They know it’s a (bad) situation to have rivals in the same cell block. Yes, they do,” she said. “They’re trying to keep things on hush while they’re investigating, but they’re punishing inmates at the same time.”
Yareli Gomez, another member of the group, said inmates have been let out of their cells at random times, sometimes in the middle of the night.
“My dad calls me and my family at 2 a.m., when we are sleeping,” Gomez said in a group statement. “He says it is the only time he is allowed to make a phone call or take a shower.”
The group says all books and pencils have been removed from cells and that, with no recreation or free time, some inmates have tried to kill themselves.
Perkins said that’s not true. Some books have been removed from cells, but only when they exceeded the five or six that the jail allows. Perkins said she was unaware of suicide attempts because of the lock back, though she acknowledged inmates sometimes do try to kill themselves.
She also said the jail has begun releasing larger groups from their cells so that everyone should now be getting their two-hour “walk” by 10 p.m.
The jail has 523 inmates, so it is not full. But Perkins said she can’t always segregate inmates because different pods serve distinct groups such as women, those on work release and those being disciplined for breaking the rules.
News researcher Peggy Neal contributed to this story.