Durham News

Sheriff asks federal agency to inspect Durham County jail

The National Institute of Corrections will conduct an inspection of the Durham County jail early next year following a request by Sheriff Mike Andrews.

Andrews announced the inspection by the federal agency that falls under the U.S. Department of Justice after yet another protest Thursday evening in which a group raised concerns about jail conditions for the nearly 500 detainees who are mostly awaiting trial.

“The agency will will conduct a thorough inspection of the detention center and offer recommendations on the best practices early next year,” Andrews said in a statement released about 6 p.m. Thursday night.

The Sheriff’s Office is also reviewing the use of jail resources and asked the county Health Department to examine the nutritional value of meals.

Andrews said that his commitment to the safety of the 487 detainees is “unwavering,” and that the jail is subject to state and other regular inspections.

About an hour before, the recently formed, self-appointed Durham Jail Investigation Team held a protest in front of the jail demanding access to the facility and inmates to get more information on concerns about unsanitary conditions, inadequate food, a lack of access to medical treatment and other issues.

“Folks in Durham are required to treat their pets better than we are treating folks here in this jail,” said Jillian Johnson, a Durham City Councilwoman who indicated she was speaking as a resident.

The group of about 20 people, which includes teachers, health care workers, inmate family members, researchers and activists, grew out of the Inside-Outside Alliance. The alliance, a group of family members and advocates, have been protesting conditions at the jail for months.

The Durham Jail Investigation Team members have been reviewing and categorizing about 350 letters sent over the past three years by inmates outlining concerns about the jail, said member Katya Roytburd.

On Thursday night the group demanded:

▪  In-person visits with at least 100 inmates by Jan. 11 to administer a jail condition survey.

▪  Full inspection of medical care, dining and living facilities.

▪  Access to all grievance data.

▪  Monthly revenue reports from contract companies that provide food, telephone and commissary services.

▪  Evidence of when inmates are allowed to leave their cells. The Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, has said that inmates were given access to common and recreational areas eight hours a day. Roytburd said inmates have indicated that isn’t the case.

After Andrews released his statement, Roytburd said the group welcomes the federal inspection, but their demands still stand.

“There is no reason that our process can’t be run in parallel,” she said.

The Inside-Outside Alliance expressed concern about jail conditions in March, after inmates’ time allowed out of their cells was cut from 10 hours a day to two hours every other day.

At the time, Andrews said the change followed a rise in violence at the jail, along with threats against detention staff.

Over the spring and summer, the Sheriff’s Office increased inmates’ time allowed outside their cells incrementally, most recently to eight hours a day on Oct. 1.

On Thursday, members of the Durham Jail Investigation Team said inmates have indicated that they found mold on mattresses, old food on what is supposed to be clean trays, and weeks-long waits to see a dentist for toothaches.

Umar Muhammad, a community organizer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said inmates are taking plea deals just so they can move on to the state penitentiary to find better conditions.

On Monday, the Sheriff’s Office announced that detention officers Anita Louise Alston and Rachel L. Smith were fired and face simple assault and misdemeanor obstruction of justice charges after officials reviewed noncompliance reports that indicated they had used too much force on an inmate.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges