What if Durham had a rehab center as big as the county jail?

Former City Council member Frank Hyman argues the Durham County jail has been forced into roles it was never set up to serve.
Former City Council member Frank Hyman argues the Durham County jail has been forced into roles it was never set up to serve. file photo

Even the strongest supporters of the Durham County Sheriff’s Office recognize that conditions at the jail could be more constructive and more humane both for prisoners and staff. The question is, how best to create long-lasting changes?

But let’s start with some ground rules and a clarification of the problem. First, I believe our law enforcement officers (with a very few exceptions) are doing they best they can under the circumstances. We all acknowledge how tough it is to be a teacher. Now imagine having a job at least that tough, but with the added hassle that your family might learn that you are dead at the end of the day.

Second, jails hold people before they go to their trial (prisons hold people after their trial). But due to underfunded state and federal services and out-of-date practices our jail has acquired five other unofficial roles:

1) Prison: As the underfunded court system slows down, too many people in the jail (and the victims of those who are guilty) wait too long for their day in court. Too often, when people are convicted, they go home because they have already served the equivalent of a prison sentence (Does the state reimburse Durham for relieving it of this burden?). And what about the imprisoned people who are found not guilty at trial but have served the equivalent of a prison term?

2) Rehab Clinic: between the stress that leads some people to self-medicate and the money lost fighting and losing a war on drugs, too many citizens wind up addicted and in jail without the tools to overcome that addiction.

3) Criminal Tech School: A minority of inmates avail themselves of the contacts and techniques they can acquire from more experienced members of the criminal economy.

4) Psychiatric Ward: With the underfunding of state and federal mental health services, the jail staff sometimes find themselves performing as untrained psych techs.

5) Debtor’s Prison: With our bail bond system, jails often function as debtor’s prisons, causing too many poor people to lose their jobs, homes and even their children over cases that are sometimes thrown out.

At best it will take years to turn things around at the state and federal level. But there’s one big thing we can do more quickly at the local level to make jail-time more humane and in fact to transform the jail into Durham’s biggest and best rehab center.

We could choose to separate the sheriff’s patrol activities from the management of the jail. With the patrol work in a county department with a county police chief it would really change the nature of elections for sheriff. An alternative would be to combine those patrol officers with the DPD into a Durham City/County Police Department with a chief hired jointly by the city and county manager, as they do with the City/County Planning and Inspections departments. This alternative would require more heavy lifting by officials, but would also net real savings and a better distribution of costs and benefits. For instance, a City/County Police Department would rely on funding from Research Triangle Park that the DPD does not now have.

Legally we can split the patrol function from the Office of the Sheriff. The N.C. Constitution only requires that at minimum we have an elected sheriff who oversees the jail, the courts and serving of papers.

As voters we could then insist on a sheriff who not only had law enforcement expertise, but also a track record in facilitating rehabilitation of our brothers and sisters unfortunate enough to find themselves in jail. Not all inmate will need theses options, but they should be available to all inmates.

By voting for a person to oversee the jail who had a focus on making the most of opportunities for mental health treatment, drug rehab, restorative justice, job training and a reformed bail system, we could be doing much more to empower inmates before they leave custody as well as improving opportunities for victims to find justice.

As a practical matter this would require better wages and training for corrections officers (who would perhaps be called rehab officers) as well as enhanced integration with other county departments such as Public Health, Durham Tech and Social Services and appropriate non-profits.

By putting the focus of the Office of Sheriff on the jail and courts we could see real, substantial, long-lasting changes.

Frank Hyman is a carpenter and stonemason who has held two elected offices. He is also the policy analyst for Blue Collar Comeback.

Jail meeting Thursday

The Durham Human Relations Commission will present its report on conditions in the Durham County Detention Center and recommendations for reform at noon Thursday, Feb 8, at ReCity, 112 Broadway St in Durham. This is part of the Locked in Solidarity week of awareness and action around mass incarceration. Seats remained availble on Wednesday. To register go to http://bit.ly/2nIGeMa