By Monica Chen
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services found “no deficiencies” at the Durham County Jail in September even though the jail was continuing a COVID lockdown after mandates were lifted statewide.
The Division of Health Service Regulation’s inspection report of the Durham jail, mailed to Sheriff Clarence Birkhead on Sept. 28, stated: “This inspection found no deficiencies, no corrective actions is necessary, and no further action on your part is required.”
That division of the NCDHHS conducts semi-annual inspections of county jails. Gov. Roy Cooper ended the statewide COVID emergency in August. Durham ended its mask mandate in March.
Because of the continued COVID lockdown, all inmates at the Durham jail are being held in conditions equal to solitary confinement. For some of the inmates who were incarcerated on or before March 2020, that means their solitary confinement has lasted now three years.
When reached for comment recently, DHHS spokeswoman Kelly Haight would not say if the agency was aware of the COVID lockdown at the Durham jail.
“NCDHHS was not aware of this allegation and there are no current statewide COVID-19 related mandates,” Haight replied over e-mail.
When it was pointed out to her that there is in fact a lockdown at the jail, and not just an “allegation,” Haight referred to CDC guidelines and directed further questions to the Durham sheriff.
Durham activists have been sounding the alarm about the situation at the jail since winter, and gathered 435 signatures on an open letter calling for the lockdown to end.
The activists say that from meetings with the sheriff, they know inmates are being held in 21-23 hour daily solitary confinement.
“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,” states the letter from Marcia Owen and Andrea “Muffin” Hudson.
The letter was sent to Sheriff Birkhead, District Attorney Satana Deberry, Chief District Court Judge Clayton Jones, Police Chief Patrice Andrews and other local officials.
In reaction to news of the Durham jail lockdown, ACLU of North Carolina Director Chantal Stevens commented last Tuesday: “We believe that solitary confinement is a dangerous and degrading practice and its use should be restricted by prisons and jails. Further, we do not believe that understaffing is legal justification.”
Birkhead and Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman AnnMarie Breen both have told news reporters that the reason for the continued lockdown is because of COVID, not staffing.
However, according to a News &Observer article last summer, the jail had as much as a 90-person vacancy in staffing.
And activists say Birkhead has admitted to them in meetings that it is in fact a staffing problem.
“Sheriff Birkhead has told all three of us more than once that the issue at the jail is staffing, not COVID,” Mike Sistrom, leader of the jail ministry at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, said recently. Sistrom has been working with Owen and Hudson on the issue.
In March, the Sheriff’s Office denied there was a lockdown at all. That was disputed by the activists as well as the sheriff’s own words in January, when Birkhead called what’s in place at the jail, “quarantine protocol,” in comments to reporters.
The Durham County Department of Public Health recently refused to condemn the situation at the Durham jail, with spokeswoman Alecia Smith saying, “The Health Department does not mandate COVID-19 safety protocols for other agencies or departments.”
Both Durham Health and NCDHHS are signaling that any public or private entity can reinstitute COVID lockdowns on their own right now without any pushback from them.
“From 2020-2022, state mandates for COVID-19 did prescribe specific processes for congregate living settings, including jails,” Haight said. “Without those mandates in place, local officials are free to guide operations at detention facilities.”
ACLU-NC declined to comment on the DHHS inspection report.
“After consulting with our legal team, we do not have any additional information or comments to provide at this time, as this is not an issue we are actively work on,” Keisha Williams said in an e-mail.