Durham News: Opinion

David Theurer: Listen to prisoners on Durham County Jail lockback

By David Theurer

Five weeks ago, members of Inside-Outside Alliance wrote questions to the Durham County sheriff about the disturbing conditions at the Durham County Jail. Sheriff Mike Andrews’ responses display a callous lack of concern with the conditions prisoners live under and a reluctance to discuss them openly.

For an elected official, the sheriff is surprisingly opaque. He does not make regular public appearances, have any sort of civilian oversight committee, or take public comments on policy. 

The Durham County commissioners and Sheriff Andrews claimed we had “misinformation” regarding conditions at the jail. While county commissioners take the word of the sheriff, we listen to the words of prisoners who experience harmful conditions first-hand and write to us. We listen to the family members who visit their loved ones inside. We also read the contracts that the jail has with for-profit corporations including Aramark, Globaltel, and Correct Care Solutions. Based on this information, we have found the sheriff’s responses to our questions lacking. 

Despite the sheriff’s repeated attempts to dismiss the lockback, it is still occurring. The sheriff has stated that the prisoners used to get 10 hours out of their cells per day. Now they only get four hours out per day. The sheriff did not answer whether this would end or what its rollback would look like. It is playing semantics to deny that this is collective punishment. When one restricts the freedom of an entire group for the actions of a few that is collective punishment. 

Regarding fees for phone use, the sheriff’s response gives misleading information. The Durham Jail changed telephone providers from Pay-tel to GlobalTel a week before they published their response, but they still gave figures from Pay-tel. GlobalTel charges higher rates and fees. This is concerning as the majority of people currently held in the jail are only there because they are unable to post bail. This further exploits those who are already financially insecure. 

One of the most appalling responses was regarding attempted suicides. We have heard from inmates of at least three attempted suicides recently. Sheriff Andrews claims, “there has not been an increase in suicide attempts since the recreation schedule was adjusted.” But he avoids the questions: how many attempted suicides happened before the lockback? How many during? Further, he acknowledges that they do not report attempted suicides to any regulatory body.

County Commissioner Michael Page stated that he would be “totally surprised” if our claims were substantiated. What will it take for him to be convinced?  

We have stacks of letters from prisoners complaining that the food is terrible, does not meet diabetics’ needs, and leaves them hungry. Sheriff Andrews says the jail follows dietary guidelines.  

We have stacks of letters complaining of medical neglect. Sheriff Andrews says the jail is compliant with regulations. 

Families of the prisoners tell us that their mail is often not delivered, and many of our own letters have been returned with no explanation. Sheriff Andrews says they only block mail that is a security concern based on “correspondence,” without defining what that means. 

So we ask the commissioners again, what more can we do to substantiate our claims? It is the word of the prisoners against the word of their jailer. If we only listen to Sheriff Andrews, if we never give weight to the prisoners’ claims and independently investigate them, we give the sheriff license to do whatever he wishes. This is a recipe for abuse.

David Theurer is a member of the Inside Outside Alliance.