Durham News

Inmates outline concerns; Sheriff calls for federal inspection

Marcus Banks was in the Durham County jail for about a month last summer. It may have been hot outside, he said, but inside it was really cold.

“They give you this small blanket for like a 10-year-old kid and expect you to be warm,” he said.

Banks, who is awaiting trial on a charge of possession with intent to sell heroin, also had complaints about the thin mat he was given to sleep on, floors that were “like a gas station bathroom” and food that was “horrible.”

“The best thing they had was a bologna and mustard sandwich,” said Banks, 24, of Durham who said he lost about 15 pounds in a month.

Alexander Williams, 23, of Durham was in the jail from May 27 to June 26 for a probation violation. He said a nearby detainee had to remain in a cell for nearly two days – except for two hours in a common area – with a broken toilet with fecal matter.

Williams said he saw guards being overly aggressive by using a Taser and then kicking two inmates who fell to the ground and throwing an elderly man who was detoxing to the floor.

Williams also didn’t have adequate shower time because inmates were being kept in their cells almost around the clock, he said.

“I didn’t have no rights,” Williams said. Both he and Banks also said they had very limited telephone access.

Those are some of the concerns that have the new, self-appointed Durham Jail Investigation calling for an independent review of the jail. Members protested in front of Durham County Detention Facility last week.

About an hour after the team’s protest, Sheriff Mike Andrews announced the National Institute of Corrections, part of the U.S. Department of Justice, will conduct an inspection of the jail early next year.

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 nearly 500 detainees is “unwavering.”

The Durham Jail Investigation Team, a group of about 20 people that includes teachers, health care workers, inmate family members, researchers and activists, said they welcome the federal inspection, but they still want access to the jail, inmates and other information.

“There is no reason that our process can’t be run in parallel,” said team member Katya Roytburd.

The Durham Jail Investigation team grew out of the Inside-Outside Alliance, a group of inmate family members and advocates who have been protesting conditions at the jail for months.

“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 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, Roytburd said.

The team’s demands include:

▪  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.

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, including threats against jailers.

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.

Last week 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.

Last week, 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 for using excessive force on an inmate.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges