Durham County

Prison conditions targeted at Durham rally. This the ‘beginning of the protests,’ promises activist.

Rafiq Zaidi has been out of prison for over 30 years, but he still remembers the inhumane treatment of prisoners he witnessed while inside.

Zaidi, a member of the Inside-Outside Alliance and the Nation of Islam, heard from prisoners and their family members about prison conditions and started organizing protests about three years ago.

“I felt that it was urgent ... to initiate these types of protests,” he said. “We started out with only a hand-full, about three of us. And it has escalated into a movement, where we now have a voice in the City of Durham.”

Protesters rallied at CCB Plaza on Thursday to protest prison conditions in North Carolina. The organization of the state’s county commissioners, meanwhile, were holding a conference at the Marriott Hotel by CCB Plaza. The commissioners are in charge of the sheriffs who handle the policies that govern county jails.

“They’re talking about amplifying voices in our community, but how can they amplify voices?” said Daniela Hernandez-Blanco. “It’s a closed-door thing — we’re outside. Those doors are locked. We can’t get in. We’re here to gather together to speak among ourselves and have them hear us and make sure that they can’t forget us.”

17-year-old Gema Ramirez spoke about her mother, Neydit Vay-Almarez, who was detained two months ago in Raleigh.

“She had a panic attack in jail and no one noticed,” Ramirez said. “They have her locked up in there with nothing to do.”

She said her mother’s birthday is Friday, but she, along with her two siblings, won’t be able to visit her because visitation is only Monday through Thursday.

Zaidi called for an independent investigation.

“When we say independent, we’re not talking about the county, local government, the health department, or the state,” he said. “We are talking about federal authorities who have not already colluded with the city to come in randomly, to come in without knowledge so they can see for themselves.”

The Inside-Outside Alliance and Alerta Migratoria NC called for the end of jail deaths, the end of collaboration between Durham police and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials (ICE) and the end of video visitation in jails.

Rev. Joe Stapleton, a pastor at Durham’s Cornerstone Community Church, said video visitation dehumanizes prisoners.

“If we were talking about a prison out in the middle of nowhere, where it’s hard for families to get to, it might make some sense to have a remote video option for families,” Stapleton said. “But in a county jail where most people detained have family who live around it makes no sense.”

Zaidi said the protests won’t stop.

“This is just the beginning of the protests,” he said. “They won’t see us quit.”

Ana Irizarry: 317-213-3553