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What’s going on at the Durham County Jail?

By Monica Chen

The Durham County Sheriff’s Office is still using COVID lockdown protocols at the jail, and activists are sounding the alarm about the conditions amounting to solitary confinement for the hundreds of inmates.

In fact, for some of the inmates at the Durham County Jail who were incarcerated on or before March 2020, that means their solitary confinement has lasted now three years.

Activists Marcia Owen and Andrea “Muffin” Hudson sent an open letter in December to local officials, including Sheriff Clarence Birkhead, District Attorney Satana Deberry, Chief District Court Judge Clayton Jones and Police Chief Patrice Andrews. They called for the urgent need to alleviate conditions at the jail.

The letter has been signed by hundreds of people and organizations. Owen and Hudson also have met with Birkhead and others to discuss their concerns.

“Muffin and I understand from our meeting with the sheriff on Nov. 16 that the jail has sustained the 21-23 [hours] alone in cell for every incarcerated person since late March 2020,” Owen said in an e-mail this week.

She also confirmed to The Spring Magazine that means some inmates have been in solitary confinement since that time. “The sheriff made it clear to Muffin and me that there is not enough staff to let people out of their cells,” she said.

Owen is the former director of Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham. Hudson is the director of N.C. Community Bail Fund of Durham.

AnnMarie Breen, spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office, did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week. Birkhead also did not respond to a request for comment.

Gov. Roy Cooper lifted the statewide COVID emergency order last August. In Durham, the mask mandate ended last March.

Both Birkhead and Breen have emphasized to news reporters the continued lockdown was because of COVID, not staffing.

However, staffing shortages at the jail have been noted by activists and the media. The News & Observer recently reported there were 90 job vacancies at the jail in mid-2022.

Owen and Hudson asked in their letter to reduce the inmate total by at least 100.

“Durham’s values and missions require us to desist from our present practice of confining mentally and financially vulnerable residents in solitary cells for a minimum of 21 hours a day,” they wrote.

“This letter is not a request for increased staffing but a response to a crisis situation. We believe this is an important first step towards a model of community care in Durham. Collectively, you were able to reduce the detention center population at the onset of the pandemic, and now we’re asking you to please do it again, immediately,” they added.

Currently, there are 338 incarcerated persons at the jail, according to the Sheriff’s Office’s web site. Of those, 10 have been at the jail since March 2020 and before.

In the past month, 506 people total were detained at the jail.

Daniel Siegel, deputy legal director of ACLU North Carolina, said in an e-mail this week that solitary confinement should be “used as an absolute last resort.”

“Prisons and jails must take reasonable precautions to keep incarcerated people safe from COVID-19 and other infectious diseases,” he said. “Solitary confinement, however, is itself an extremely dangerous practice that subjects people to a high risk of mental and physical harm. It should only be used as an absolute last resort and for the shortest duration possible.”

“Many federal courts have acknowledged that solitary confinement may violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. And a lack of staff or funds is not an excuse for government officials to violate the Constitution,” he added. “Even so, it is used all too frequently in prisons and jails in North Carolina and across the country.”

This article has been updated from an earlier version.

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