Durham County

Durham County Sheriff’s Office corrects itself: Inmate visits up, not down

Durham County jail officials say figures indicating inmate visits fell by half – fueling criticism of a plan to start video visitation – were wrong.

In January, jail officials said inmate visits dropped nearly 50 percent from 2015 to 2016 – from 29,770 to 15,201.

The apparent decrease bolstered criticism from inmate advocacy group the Inside-Outside Alliance, which linked the drop to steps taken to implement video visitation.

On Wednesday, however, Durham County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Tamara Gibbs said those figures were incorrect.

Col. Anthony Prignano, who was appointed in May to lead the jail, provided Gibbs with more accurate figures showing a 3 percent increase in inmate visits during that time to 30,742 visitors.

Maj. Julian Couch, who served as the interim jail director and provided the information in January, had only used a portion of the data, Gibbs said.

In November 2014, the jail moved to online visitation scheduling, taking steps toward video visitation. A computer kiosk in the front lobby let people without internet access schedule visits. Couch had provided data from visits that were scheduled online in 2016, but not from people who walked through the door.

“That is the reason for the discrepancy in the 2016 visitor total we provided you in January,” Gibbs said. “Col. Prignano’s review of the visitor log is the most recent and accurate.”

The Inside-Outside Alliance has cited the decrease in visits on posters pasted across the city with a picture of Durham County Commissioners Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs.

The poster says Jacobs is “Wanted” for “professional negligence,” contending the jail has cut visits 50 percent leading up to the implementation of video visitation and is now charging for video visits.

Jacobs has said she and commissioners don’t run the jail, which hasn’t yet implemented actual video visitation and doesn’t plan to charge for it. Sheriff Mike Andrews said the video visitation would allow visitors to communicate with inmates via a computer screen in the lobby and supplement their in-person visits.

The Sheriff’s Office initially planned to offer video visitation by spring or summer, but it will probably take longer, Gibbs said.

The Sheriff’s Office may also implement a service in which inmates can communicate with loved ones via a personal computer or mobile device, which is typically associated with fees at other facilities. No decisions have been made on when or how the jail would implement it, Andrews has said.

Greg Williams, a member of the Inside-Outside Alliance, said he is skeptical about the Sheriff’s Office information. Members who have visited inmates said it appeared visits decreased during that time, Williams said.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges