Voters are choosing the next sheriff for Durham County right now, in the election between incumbent Mike Andrews and challenger Clarence Birkhead.
One of the prime issues is how the jail (Durham County Detention Center) has been run. This is one of the sheriff’s chief duties.
I ran into a friend this week. When we talked about the sheriff’s race, she said she was concerned about the jail. I knew then I must write this statement.
I served on the Durham Human Relations Commission (HRC). During 2016 the commission held hearings about the jail and ultimately issued a report to Durham County in 2017. A fellow commissioner and I submitted a minority report. Several other commissioners attempted to suppress our minority report.
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The kangaroo court which had been conducted by the HRC so disturbed me that I declined to seek a further term on the commission.
During the jail hearings, the commission demonstrated no independent or thoughtful review of activists' claims, such as the Inside Outside Alliance and the Jail Investigative Team (JIT). In the end, the commission essentially took the recommendations of the anti-jail JIT and adopted them as their own.
During one review session I asked a fellow commissioner where the commission's recommendations differed from JIT’s. Her response was, “You figure it out” or words to that effect. The chair at the time abstained on the vote for the report. He was quoted as stating that he was uncomfortable because he perceived the report accused the Sheriff’s Office of malice.
Two examples of the most egregious JIT/HRC recommendations follow:
▪ “Create a civilian oversight board for the (detention facility) which includes formerly incarcerated individuals. … We also recommend that no law enforcement sit on the board (thereby completely civilian).”
A civilian review board is not, of itself, objectionable but the explicit provision to exclude the voices of those involved with law enforcement demonstrates, of itself, a lack of fairness.
▪ “End the use of lock backs for jail-wide punishment and implement other responses to credible threats of violence within the DCDF.”
Tie the hands of administrative officials to respond to CREDIBLE threats of violence? This kooky recommendation would endanger the well-being of prisoners and jail personnel.
I encourage all voters to cast their ballots in this important race. The sheriff is one of the key Public Safety officials in Durham.
But no matter whom you choose to support for sheriff, please don’t be hoodwinked into thinking that the HRC's report is an objective or thoughtful guide. The HRC report may be found at durhamnc.gov/DocumentCenter/View/20151. Unsurprisingly, the minority report has not been posted.
Richard Ford lives in Durham where he is active in civic matters. He served as a commissioner on the Durham Human Relations Commission from 2012 to 2017