Durham County

Demonstrators stop traffic in downtown Durham to protest jail deaths

Protesters are pictured in front of the Durham County jail Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017.
Protesters are pictured in front of the Durham County jail Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. vbridges@heraldsun.com

Protesters took to the downtown streets Tuesday night seeking to raise awareness and spur action to prevent more deaths at the Durham County jail, they said.

About 30 protesters gathered in front of the Durham County jail Tuesday around 6 p.m. to protest the death of James Earl Staton Jr., who died late Sunday afternoon while in custody at the jail.

The Inside-Outside Alliance, a group of inmates advocates, had called a rally outside the jail Tuesday to show support for families of people who have died in the jail. The protest started with David Theurer reading the names of the six people who have died at the jail since 2013.

The previous five were:

▪  Terry Lee

▪  Dennis Edward McMurray

▪  Raphael Marquis Bennett

▪  Matthew Lamont McCain

▪  Uniece Fennell

“I am disgusted to be here again,” Theurer said. “We have been here too many times in the past five years.”

The protesters came to remember those who have died, he said, and to add a new name to that list: Staton.

“We don’t know very much about Mr. Staton at this time,” but over the years they have learned about the others, he said.

McMurray was a loving grandfather, Theurer said. McCain was a dedicated father. And Fennell brought life into a lot of people’s lives.

Theurer and others questioned why there have been six deaths at the jail over the last four years, and questioned the Sheriff’s Office statement that the 40-year-old Staton died from natural causes.

Staton was found unresponsive in his cell late Sunday afternoon, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

An investigation, which is standard practice, is underway to determine Staton’s cause of death. Preliminary findings suggest Staton died of natural causes, according to the Sheriff’s Office. His body was taken to the state medical examiner’s office in Raleigh for an autopsy.

In response to concerns expressed by the state about jail procedures related to three of the deaths, the jail has added new policies and protocols to make sure inmate checks are done regularly and require that any information suggesting inmates are threats to themselves be brought to the attention of supervisors and mental health staff, jail director Col. Anthony Prignano has said.

The jail opened last month a mental health housing unit to care for some of the facility’s most vulnerable population.

“The detention facility remains focused on following state guidelines, making policy changes when necessary, and completing the current investigation,” said Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Tamara Gibbs.

Ashley Canady, 31, McCain’s girlfriend, said when she heard there was another death at the jail it reminded her of the feelings she had when she learned McCain would never come home.

“It really hit my heart, and I am like something has to be done,” she said.

It’s the number of people who have died in the jail that concern her, she said.

“They need to figure out what their officers are not doing because people just aren’t just dying in the jail,” she said.

Protesters chanted in front of the jail and held signs that said “Honk for justice,” and “All prisoners are political prisoners.” Some inmates stood in windows and waved down to the demonstrators. Then protesters moved to the middle of South Mangum Street, chanting and blocking traffic.

“If we don’t get it, shut it down,” they chanted.

They walked to the Durham County Board of Elections. When they didn’t see a crowd, they moved on to Pompieri Pizza, where supporters for mayoral election winner Steve Schewel were gathering.

They chanted “Steve Schewel, what do you say, someone in jail has died today.”

The jail is run by the Sheriff’s Office, but Theurer said city officials like Schewel need to pressure the Sheriff’s Office and county commissioners, who control the jail’s budget, to take action.

Schewel wasn’t there yet and protesters decided to walk back down to Mangum Street and return to the jail, where they dispersed around 8 p.m.

Ricky Alston, 37, of Durham said the protesters took to the street because they want to raise awareness about the jail deaths. They want to show the people who are visiting the Durham Performing Arts Center and other downtown attractions that there is a problem, he said.

“They don’t know what is going on right across the street,” Alston said.

Six deaths since 2013

Six people, including James Earl Staton Jr. who was found unresponsive Sunday, have died at the Durham County jail since 2013. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has cited Durham in three jail deaths for leaving inmates unsupervised for longer than state regulations allow

▪  Terry Lee, 21, committed suicide in 2013. A DHHS investigation found Lee had a known history of mental illness and should have been observed four times an hour. The electronic record of detention officers’ rounds showed Lee went unobserved for nearly six hours the day he hanged himself, and had put a towel over his cell door window so no one could see what he was doing.

▪  Dennis Edward McMurray died Jan. 10, 2015, of an accidental drug overdose, according to an autopsy report.

He had been booked into the jail Jan. 9, 2015. On Jan. 10, he complained of stomach pain and vomiting. He was checked by medical staff and returned to his cell.

At 1:30 p.m. McMurray was seen sitting up. Staff arrived at 1:36 p.m. with nausea medication and found him unresponsive on the floor.

McMurray was pronounced dead at 2:11 p.m. The report said his stomach contained wadded aluminum foil filled with brown material.

According to a Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, detectives determined McMurray had swallowed the drugs before detectives entered his home Jan. 9. The team had a warrant to search for illegal drugs.

▪  Raphael Marquis Bennett died Aug. 31, 2015.

▪  Matthew Lamont McCain, 29, died in jail on Jan. 19, 2016 from a seizure disorder. A review of the electronic sensors showed a lack of required supervision. A detention officer was disciplined.

▪  Uniece Fennell, 17, committed suicide on March 23 after telling another inmate that she planned to harm herself. The state investigation found a jail official failed to take seriously a tip that the inmate was planning to harm herself. Fennell wasn’t checked at least twice an hour through much of the day leading up to her suicide, and was not put on suicide watch when a tip came roughly two hours before her death in the early morning of March 23.