The Durham County jail may never give inmates as much time outside their cells as it did before a surge in violence earlier this year, its director says.
Jail officials announced last week that they have increased inmates’ access to a dayroom, recreation yard, phones and showers to two hours, seven days a week.
The jail used to let inmates out of their cells 10 hours a day. That changed in March after threats were made to kidnap guards, director Lt. Col. Natalie Perkins said.
A March sweep of the jail found more than 20 makeshift knives, items filed down into sharp points, Staff Sgt. Justin Ellerbee said.
The violence led to new rules commonly called a lock-back that initially confined inmates all but two hours, three days a week. The jail would “walk” a handful of inmates at a time, while the rest of those in the “pod” remained locked in their cells.
At six hours outside their cells per week, the jail was still providing twice the minimum three hours per week that the state requires.
The now daily access still does not satisfy family members of inmates in a group called the Inside-Outside Alliance, which plans to continue its Friday night protests outside the downtown jail.
Confining inmates to a small cell where they use the toilet is unsanitary and unfair, said Cynthia Fox, whose son is in the jail.
“There are a lot of people who do deserve to be in jail,” Fox said. “But there’s no way the whole Durham County jail ought to be locked up for what some people do.”
But Perkins said the alliance is part of the problem, with some members writing their jailed relatives weekly “to pump them up and get them to do things” like throw their trays if they don’t like something.
Fox said that’s not true. She said inmates have been denied books and toilet paper, which Perkins says is not true.
One guard per pod
The jail had 541 inmates last week in 12 pods of 48 cells each. One guard is assigned per pod.
Inmates are now being released into the dayroom from 12 cells at a time, up from six previously. The mix of those being released keeps changing to prevent groups from organizing disruptions.
The jail can’t release an entire pod into the dayroom, without risking a return to the violence, Perkins said.
“It will never be able to be that much again,” she said. “We’ll never be able to walk that many again at one time.”
The jail can’t just move the troublemakers either, she said.
Inmates are housed in different pods based on classifications such as gender, mental status and level of offense. Officials say there are too many troublemakers in the jail to move them to different pods without mixing inmates, which is only a few are let out at one time.
“There are detainees, they’ve got all day long to plan,” said Capt. Don Baker. “With the modified walk schedule we’ve basically broken their ability to plan things.”
But that security means much more time inside the jail’s 98 square-foot cells, some of which have bunk beds to house two inmates at a time.
Not fully staffed
Perkins has worked at the jail since 1987 and has been its director since 2006.
She said the Durham jail is authorized to have 252 employees but currently has only 201, plus 18 staff assistants.
But even if the county allowed her to fully staff the jail it would not change the number of guards in a pod at one time, she said.
Plus, she’s not sure the jail could fill the positions. A jailer’s starting pay is $29,000 a year, she said.
“It’s not that easy hiring for this job,” she said. “We’ve had people come in and quit the same day.”