Durham County

Community concerns about Durham County jail in spotlight

Rachael Riley; rriley@heraldsun.com

DURHAM -- The Durham Human Relations Commission (HRC) has processed community concerns about the the Durham County Detention Facility since hearing complaints at a September forum.

A preliminary report from the commission’s subcommittee was discussed last week and the commission expects to discuss the report in more detail at its meeting in January.

The report takes into account information from the forum, a visit to the jail, letters from people inside the detention facility and inquiries from other stakeholders, said Diane Standaert, an HRC member and co-chair of the subcommittee.

During the course of research, Standaert said it became clear the detention facility falls under the Durham County Board of Commissioners’ jurisdiction.

However the city and police department are its largest provider of people, she said.

“Regardless of that distinction of who’s in charge of which pieces … it was clear that the detention facility and the issues surrounding it was having an impact on the City of Durham and the people who live here in Durham,” Standaert said.

Durham County Sheriff’s Office representatives said they can not comment on the report because it has not been shared with them yet.

The report is broken into nine concerns and recommendations. The first recommendation is for a community-based research team to conduct a survey with jail detainees and jail staff to “help reduce tensions in the City of Durham.”

The facility is subject to several local, state and federal unscheduled inspections conducted by trained professionals, said Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Tamara Gibbs.

The committee’s second recommendation is for an oversight board that includes formerly incarcerated people and is based on models in other states.

Gibbs said the National Institute of Corrections review of the detention facility is one example of Durham Sheriff Mike Andrews’ commitment for seeking expert opinions and recommendations of best practices for detention services.

The NIC is part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Federal Bureau of Prisons.

AN NIC report on the county jail, submitted in May, included interviews of jail staff and more than 50 detainees.

Some HRC members said it’s their understanding felons cannot serve on a review board, because the sensitivity of information given.

The third recommendation supports expansion of effective programs to minimize the number of detainees and reduce recidivism, Standaert said, citing the S.T.A.R.R. (Strength, truth, action, resources respect) mental health program, pretrial services and misdemeanor diversion program.

Gibbs said some of the matters are connected with the Durham County District Attorney’s Office, the public defender’s office and court system.

For example, the S.T.A.R.R. program is operated by the Criminal Justice Resource Center, she said; but the sheriff sees its value.

The Sheriff’s Office does its part to help at-risk youth, youth offenders, and detainees struggling with substance abuse. Programs include a partnership with the Durham Literacy Center, a diploma program which held its first graduation this year, and the Creating Healthy Opportunities Inspiring Children to Have Everyday Success program, she said.

The fourth recommendation suggests abolishing the cash bail system, specifically for minor offenses.

Gibbs said the matter is best presented for the D.A., the public defender’s office or the court system.

The fifth matter is whether the detention facility moves toward video visitation only.

Gibbs said the Sheriff’s Office is exploring ways -- similar to the lobby kiosk and website to schedule visit -- to use technology and consider best way to handle video visits.

According to the Sheriff’s Office 2015 annual report, 29,770 people visited detainees in the Durham County jail that year.

The NIC report states inmates the agency interviewed did not raise visitation concerns.

The sixth matter claims there is no policy for when the public can visit or tour the facility.

“The committee has done research to find other examples of other detention facilities that have very clear policies for public access to visit their local detention center,” Standaert said.

Gibbs said tours are granted at the discretion of the sheriff for security reasons and require staffing for safety measures.

The seventh matter relates to concerns of “poor quality of services,” provided by private contractors at high cost, such as food, medical care, telephone and cash paid services.

All contracts go through a competitive bidding process to balance affordability and quality of service, Gibbs said.

The NIC report, too, mentioned some complaints from both inmates and staff about “the palatability of meals,” but that longer-term inmates had noted improvements in that area.

Gibbs said the Sheriff’s Office has received messages from detainees who had positive experiences with the center’s new food vendor.

The vendor selection was based on the county Department of Public Health’s recommendation, a promise for a training program and the sheriff’s support of a minority-owned business, Gibbs added.

Based on the NIC’s recommendation for an independent assessment of meals, a nutritionist was invited to the facility and the sheriff himself dines at the facility, Gibbs said. The NIC report states that meals accommodate religious and medical needs.

The eighth issue involves inadequate resources to address mental health issues.

The Criminal Justice Resource Center manages mental health services at the jail.

The Sheriff’s Office worked with the CJRC to secure a federal grant of more than $228,000 to help streamline the intake process for detainees with mental illnesses, Gibbs said.

According to the 2015 report, 20 percent of detainees that year had a mental illness. The NIC report states those detainees are provided with 30 days worth of medication when released.

The last concern from the report relates to how long detainees are kept in cells or housing pods each day and references a Department of Justice report.

The NIC report states detainees are locked in housing units for 23 to 24 hours a day and recommended supervising productive activities to occupy idle time.

Housing pods include an open common area within a housing unit, where detainees are allowed to watch television and socialize, Gibbs said, providing a photo.

WHAT’S NEXT?

HRC Chairman Phil Seib said the commission will delve deeper into the report at its next meeting, and Durham County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs extended an invitation to bring it before commissioners during a work session.

“I don’t want us to say this report is done for us, but I do want to say that I think we’ve made a lot of progress in getting the people who are concerned about this with the right authority and agency so that we can move forward with making our community a strong community,” Seib said.

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