Opinion

6 jailhouse deaths all we need to know in Durham County sheriff's race -- Carl Kenney

Carl Kenney
Carl Kenney

Six deaths in the Durham County Jail since 2013.

Count them. Six people have died during the tenure of Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews.

Andrews has brought attention to the record of Clarence Birkhead, the former Hillsborough police chief opposing him in the sheriff's race. Andrews seemingly has garnered the support of Hillsborough Town Manager Eric Peterson in pitching the news that Birkhead is bad for Durham County.

How and why Peterson jumped into this dog fight deserve consideration.

Peterson may be right in asserting Birkhead left things in shambles after it was discovered some records were backdated during a re-accreditation process. There’s no doubt the manager and the fine folks in Hillsborough were left wounded after Birkhead jumped ship to run for Orange County sheriff in 2010.

But never before have I witnessed a town so invested in doing all it can to defeat a candidate in another county. The town board this past week granted Peterson permission to share Birkhead’s employment information.

The story involving what happened with Hillsborough’s accreditation is old news. Zina Long, the former accreditation manager for Hillsborough Police Department, told officers that the backdating practice was acceptable and done by many agencies. Long left the department shortly after Peterson made his findings public. Her assumptions regarding backdating landed her and Birkhead in trouble.

In full disclosure, Long and I were friends at the time. Although we never talked about her job, something felt wrong. There’s a lesson for both Andrews and Peterson.

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

Accreditation is voluntary. It’s used by agencies to demonstrate they meet professional standards. It’s a big deal, but not as big as six deaths in the county jail since 2013

On March 29, 2017, the Division of Health Service Regulations found the Durham County jail was not in compliance with state guidelines. The state submitted a statement of deficiencies that required a response with measures to ensure deficient practices not recur. The state requested dates when corrections would take place. They wanted action within 60 days.

The letter went to Andrews, Wendy Jacobs, chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, County Manager Wendall Davis and Julian Couch, Detention Center administrator, and was in response to the death of 17-year-old Uniece Glenae Fennell. Fennel was found dead on March 23, 2017, from an apparent suicide.

The report found the sheriff's department deficient in making proper rounds. Officers should make supervision rounds and directly observe each inmate in person at least twice per hour. Observations should be documented. Officers failed to place Fennel on a four times per hour watch after receiving information from another inmate that Fennel was talking about hurting herself. There was no record of the officer contacting medical staff to report the information.

Fennel is not the only one found dead.

Matthew McCain, 29, was found dead in his cell on Jan. 19, 2016, after allegedly not receiving sufficient insulin treatment for his diabetes. Family members say they received notification that McCain had been released from jail. While they celebrated the announcement, he had been found dead.

James Earl Staton, Jr., Terry Lee, Dennis Edward McMurray, Raphael Marquis Bennett – say their names. Six people found dead in the building managed by the sheriff's department versus some backdated papers that impacted accreditation.

Two wrongs have never translated into something being right, but I’m more concerned about protecting lives than a certificate on the wall.

As for Peterson and the folks over in Hillsborough, mind your own business. There may be more to this story, but we don’t need your input.

In Durham, we care more about protecting undocumented residents and ensuring the safety of all people. Keep your personnel file and let us vote without your meddling.

Sorry about your lost accreditation, but we’re grieving the deaths of six people at the Durham County jail.

Carl W. Kenney II is the co-producer of “God of the Oppressed”, an upcoming documentary that explores black liberation theology. He can be reached at: Revcwkii@hotmail.com

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