Durham News

Protesters object to Durham County jail conditions

Randa McNamara, Edwin Harris and Gabriel Baldasare were among the18 protesters standing outside the Durham County administrative building Monday night protesting county spending on the jail and asking for a community based investigation.
Randa McNamara, Edwin Harris and Gabriel Baldasare were among the18 protesters standing outside the Durham County administrative building Monday night protesting county spending on the jail and asking for a community based investigation. vbridges@newsobserver.com

Protesters gathered in front of the Durham County administrative building Monday, continuing a call for a community investigation into jail conditions.

“We are not going to let them alone until they live up to their responsibility in allowing for that investigation,” said Greg Williams, a member of the self-appointed Durham County Jail Investigation Team.

The rallied before the Board of County Commissioners 7 p.m. meeting. Eighteen people chanted chanting between speakers and held signs that said “We believe prisoners” and “No more jail deaths.”

Commissioners had initially planned to vote on whether to renew the contract for Correct Care Solutions, the jail’s medical service provider. County Manager Wendell Davis said the contract was pulled from the agenda because Public Health Director Gayle Harris is still responding to concerns raised by community members and an investigation into a recent death at the jail. Commissioners will likely consider the contract June 27, Davis said.

Williams and others expressed concern about the quality of the jail’s food, medical services and physical conditions. They also questioned guards’ attitudes toward prisoners and visitors and contended that inmates were denied the right to practice their religion, including Muslim detainees observing Ramadan.

Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Tamara Gibbs said detainees are allowed to observer religious traditions, including Ramadan.

“Breakfast is served before sunrise and a double portion meal is provided to Muslim detainees after sunset,” Gibbs wrote in response to questions submitted by The Durham News.

During Monday’s meeting, the protesters chanted outside of the commissioners’ chambers and pressed their signs to the windows. Deputies barred the door and prevented them from entering.

Earlier this month, Sheriff Mike Andrews released a federal assessment of the jail that makes 33 recommendations to improve operations and conditions for its 510 inmates, who are mostly awaiting trial.

Andrews asked the National Institute of Corrections to inspect the jail in response to community concerns. The institute is an agency within the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The recommendations include housing inmates with mental health issues in one area, providing more programs in housing units and seeking an independent review of the quality of inmates’ meals.

“While the scope of this operational assessment did not permit a comprehensive review of the operation, the general condition of the jail appears to meet or exceed N.C. standards,” the assessment states. “There is no indication of pervasive security violations or staff indifference.”

Members of the Durham County Jail Investigation Team contend the investigation was controlled by the Sheriff’s Office and mainly addressed operational items and not the quality-of-life issues they are concerned about.

Commissioners are considering adjustments to the fiscal 2016-17 county budget to address recommendations in the federal assessment, Board of Commissioners Chairman Michael Page said after the meeting. One of the adjustments includes adding 14 new deputy positions to allow the opening of a housing pod for inmates with mental health issues.

After commissioners address recommendations in the federal report, Page wants the county administration to sit down with the Sheriff’s Office to explore the issues that the investigation team is concerned about.

“It is important for us and our community that there are safe, standard practices that are being supported there,” Page said.

County Commissioners are expected to vote on the 2016-17 fiscal year spending plan June 27. The new fiscal year begins July 1.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges

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