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Sheriff’s 180: No lockdown at jail, claims spokeswoman

By Monica Chen

The Sheriff’s Office claimed last week there is no lockdown at the Durham County Jail, and there is no solitary confinement.

That’s contrary to Sheriff Clarence Birkhead and spokeswoman AnnMarie Breen’s previous statements to the media since January, when news of the jail’s conditions broke.

After numerous attempts to reach the Sheriff’s Office for comment over the past two weeks, Breen responded last Wednesday over e-mail:

“You are misinformed. The facility is not now nor has it ever been on ‘COVID lockdown.’ Additionally, the Durham County Detention Facility does not utilize ‘solitary confinement’ as that is a form of punishment. I believe that you are referring to the fact that at our current occupancy each detainee is assigned a private cell and does not have to share,” she said.

“As COVID cases develop at the facility, procedures are in place that help prevent the spread of the virus. This changes day to day and does not typically impact the entire facility,” she added.

When it was pointed out to her that Sheriff Birkhead has confirmed the facility is in lockdown, Breen did not respond.  

To The Independent Weekly in January, Birkhead said, “Our entire facility is currently under quarantine protocol, and we have re-opened a pod specifically for COVID-isolation purposes.”

Breen also told The News & Observer in January that the jail had been using COVID protocols for three years.

Mike Sistrom, leader of the jail ministry at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, has been working with activists to alleviate conditions at the jail. When reached for his reaction to Breen’s statement, Sistrom said there is both solitary confinement used for punishment and “de facto solitary confinement” at the jail.

“It’s hardly a perk that detainees get ‘private cells’ and ‘don’t have to share.’ This isn’t a hotel!” he said.

Sistrom also said Birkhead has told him and activists in meetings that the lockdown at the jail is in fact because of staffing problems, not COVID – the opposite of what the Sheriff’s Office has said to the press. Sistrom has been meeting with him along with Marcia Owen and Andrea “Muffin” Hudson.

“Sheriff Birkhead has told all three of us more than once that the issue at the jail is staffing, not COVID,” he said.

Owen and Hudson spearheaded in December an open letter to Birkhead and other Durham officials urgently calling for conditions at the jail to be improved. The letter has been signed by more than 300 people and organizations.  

In the same Indy article in January as when Birkhead confirmed there was COVID lockdown protocol still in place at the jail, he also said, “It is not a staffing issue. It is a COVID issue.”

To the N&O in January, spokeswoman Breen also said the same.

The N&O reported recently there were 90 job vacancies at the jail as of mid-2022.

Breen did not respond last week when asked about Sistrom’s statement, that the ongoing lockdown at the jail was actually because of staffing.

Meanwhile, Durham Health spokeswoman Alecia Smith would not say if they were aware of the jail lockdown that went on despite local and state COVID mandates lifting last year.

“The Durham County Sheriff’s Office and Durham County Detention Facility set COVID-19 safety protocols are determined internally, and not by the Durham County Department of Public Health,” she said in an e-mail and referred all questions to the Sheriff’s Office.

When pressed on health mandates having to be followed county-wide, and if the health department has helped the sheriff implement the lockdown, Smith replied:

“The Health Department does not mandate COVID-19 safety protocols for other agencies or departments. Internal COVID-19 safety measures practiced by other departments and agencies are determined internally by those agencies and are not required to be reported to the Health Department.”

When asked if this means any public or private entity in Durham could go back into lockdown right now without the health department’s knowledge, she did not respond.

Owen and Hudson, the activists seeking to fix conditions at the jail, are decrying the fact it has been in continuous lockdown since March 2020, resulting in inmates being held to what equals solitary confinement for 21-23 hours everyday. For some, that solitary confinement has lasted for three years.

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

“We’re writing as Durham residents to ask you to address immediately the emergency detainees are experiencing in the Durham County Detention Center,” they wrote in the letter. “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.”

The activists are calling for the jail population to be reduced since most inmates are awaiting trial.

They also sent the letter to other Durham officials in addition to the sheriff, including the district attorney, the chief public defender, the chief district court judge and the police chief, and have been meeting with them to discuss solutions.

There are more than 300 incarcerated persons at the jail currently, according to the Sheriff’s Office’s web site. Of those, 10 have been at the jail since March 2020 and before.

There have been three deaths at the jail since January 2021, according to news reports.

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