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Durham Health on jail lockdown: “The health department does not mandate COVID-19 safety protocols”

By Monica Chen

Durham County Department of Public Health is refusing to decry the continued lockdown at the Durham County Jail that has resulted in inmates being held in solitude confinement for three years.

When reached for comment, spokeswoman Alecia Smith brushed off the department’s responsibility for COVID lockdown mandates for all of Durham County. “The Health Department does not mandate COVID-19 safety protocols for other agencies or departments,” she said in one e-mail.

The Spring Magazine had asked during the week of March 20 if the department was aware of the jail lockdown continuing despite local and state mandates ending last year. We also asked if they have helped the Durham County Sheriff’s Office implement it, and if they had a reaction to inmates being held in what equates to solitary confinement.

In response to those questions, Smith first said:

“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. For more information about DCSO and Detention Facility COVID safety measures, please reach out to the Sheriff’s Office directly.”

When pressed on COVID mandates set by the health department having to be complied with county-wide for two years, and what their reaction was to the Sheriff’s Office deciding on their own to continue with lockdown, Smith said:

“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.”

Does that mean any public or private entity in Durham could go back into COVID lockdown without the health department’s knowledge right now?

Smith did not respond.

In December, local activists sent an open letter to officials including Sheriff Clarence Birkhead, District Attorney Satana DeBerry and Chief District Court Judge Clayton Jones calling for the urgent need to alleviate conditions at the jail.

The letter has been signed by more than 400 people and organizations. The activists say the jail has kept inmates alone in their cells 21-23 hours a day since March 2020. Ma

“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.

During the week of March 27, The Spring Magazine again asked the health department to comment on if its official position is that it’s OK for the Sheriff’s Office to keep the jail in lockdown contrary to public health guidelines.

Smith replied, “All city [and] county-wide mask mandates and other COVID-19 safety requirements for other agencies were implemented and managed by the City and County under the Durham County Safer-At-Home Order and Durham County State of Emergency for COVID-19, or by the Governor’s Office under the North Carolina State of Emergency, and not by the Health Department, since the start of the pandemic.”

But it was Public Health Director Rodney Jenkins who announced last February that Durham County can lift the mask mandate. The city and county managed COVID safety requirements based on the health department’s recommendations.

When it was pointed out that the health department’s hands-off position now runs counter to what Durham residents were told for two years, Smith did not respond.

The Spring Magazine also has been contacting Jenkins. He has not responded to requests for comment.

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