Whenever people hear about happenings at the Durham County jail, it typically means there was a protest or someone died.
Col. Anthony Prignano wants to change that, he said in an interview.
Wednesday marked Prignano’s third day as director of the jail. He walks into the position as protesters, including inmate advocacy group the Inside-Outside Alliance, have regularly criticized inmate conditions and the plans to begin video visitation.
Prignano, who has been with the Sheriff’s Office for 22 years, was among four internal candidates interviewed during a two week-long process that included Durham-based consulting firm Development Associates, community members and law enforcement officials from across the state.
Following the promotion, Prignano received a 15 percent boost in pay to $92,097.
The Durham jail has a budget of nearly $15 million and 576 cells. It can house up to 736 inmates. As of Thursday morning there were 464 inmates.
Prignano, 49, joined the Sheriff’s Office in 1995 as a detention officer. He has served as commander of the Sherriff’s Office bomb squad and captain of the unit that oversaw animal control.
Prignano succeeds Lt. Col. Natalie Perkins, who retired in January after running the jail since 2006.
Prignano and Sheriff Mike Andrews spoke with The Herald-Sun about the future of the jail. Their edited comments are below.
Q: Does the implementation of video visitation mean in-person visitation is going away?
A: (Andrews) If you don’t want to use it, you don’t have to. You’ll have your two in-person visits a week. If you don’t want to go to the booth and pick up the phone, you don’t have to. It was just another option to give people an opportunity to visit with a loved one. … As long as I am the sheriff, my thought process was to continue with the in-person visits.
Q: Why didn’t you open up the search for the new director to outside candidates?
A: (Andrews) I have 500 employees here, and I felt we had qualified individuals who work in this office that could lead and be the director of the facility.
I also have to think about somebody who has community relations and is known in the community. I work with the men and women every day. I felt I needed to offer our men and women the opportunity to seek this position.
Q: (To Prignano) In the press release announcing your promotion, Andrews said he charged you “with the daily assignment of making the detention facility better than it was the day before.” How do you plan to do that?
A: (Prignano) Well, being here three days so far, I have had an opportunity to look around. Do I know everything right now? No. Do I have good staff to show me exactly where our needs are? Absolutely.
One thing that we are looking at is being accredited by the American Correctional Association. (Durham would be one of the few jails in the state to have the accreditation, according to Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Tamara Gibbs.)
What that is going to do is allow for policies to be above board. It gives an outside entity an opportunity to view inside to see yes, you are doing this right, you are doing this wrong and this where you need to improve.
Q: What have you learned over the past three days?
A: (Prignano) Just because detainees are here, they are not bad people. And we have to get that our of our minds. Did they make a mistake? Absolutely. Are they going to through the court system to be judged. Absolutely.
I am not their judge. I’m tasked with keeping them safe, fed and making sure they go to court. I am also tasked with trying to improve their lives in some way once they get out.
That can be through education. That can be through drug rehab. That can be through some technical training.
That’s one thing that I want to try to get out to folks. They are not bad people. They are part of our community. And we have to treat them as part of our community. We have to try to ensure we have done everything we can to make them a positive influence on their community.
Q: The Inside-Outside Alliance and other community leaders have expressed concerns about the jail. Are you willing to meet and have conversations with them?
A: (Prignano) Absolutely. Working in law enforcement, I come from a community policing background.
So I have dealt with community watch programs. I have met with Partners Against Crime groups. I have met with several community organizations. So that is something I would like to bring here. So, let’s branch out and get with our communities, so communities can have a say in what we do and our purpose.
They really don’t know what a detention officer does or what they face every day.
When we are in the news, it is a protest out front or something bad has happened at the facility. We need to change that. What we need to do is get our staff involved in some of the community organizations, meeting with the community and see the good that we do here. Hopefully that would change some minds.
Here are updates on some recent jail developments.
Mental health pod
The county’s 2016-17 budget included 10 new detention officer positions to staff a mental health pod and other areas in the jail.
The mental health pod remains a priority, but it still requires staffing, said Tamara Gibbs, a Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman.
“The challenge is turnover and getting enough officers trained to work the mental health pod,” Gibbs wrote in an email. “One of the things the agency is doing now is requiring all applicants to start off as detention officers. This is an attempt to help with staffing and to make the mental health pod a reality. The hope is to get it up and running this year.”
Time outside cell
Until March 2015, inmates had been allowed out of their cells 10 hours a day. In response to what jail officials described as a rise in violence and finding weapons, inmates’ hours outside their cells were reduced to two hours every other day. Over time, the time was increased until it reached eight hours by October 2015, where it remains.
Incidents at the jail
From 2015 to 2016 detention officers’ use of force increased 15 percent from 279 incidents to 322 incidents, according to reports provided by the Sheriff’s Office.
From Jan. 1 to April 30, jail officials noted 16 incidents of contraband and weapons found on detainees, according to information provided by jail officers. Four were weapons.