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The ACLU’s silence on NCDHHS and the Durham jail lockdown speaks volumes

By Monica Chen

The ACLU of North Carolina recently refused to condemn, or even comment, on the state health department’s inspection report of the Durham County Jail that showed the NCDHHS couldn’t care less that it’s in an illegal COVID lockdown keeping all inmates in solitary confinement.

Instead, the director of the organization, Chantal Stevens, opted to give a canned response on solitary confinement and staffing problems at the jail.

And the spokeswoman, Keisha Williams, amazingly said, “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.”

That is incredible because the ACLU-NC has been using incarcerated people’s plight for their marketing for years. But when it comes to an immediate problem of hundreds of inmates stuck in solitary confinement and clear signs of corruption at the state level that’s keeping them there, the ACLU cannot be bothered.

To sum up what’s been happening at the Durham County Jail, Sheriff Clarence Birkhead continued the COVID lockdown there even after local and state mandates ended last year. That means all inmates have been held in solitary for 21-23 hours a day. For some, that solitary confinement has lasted an inhumane and horrifying three years.

Activists in Durham have decried that and started an open letter, but any change is happening slowly. That is especially because the Sheriff’s Office keeps changing their story and not taking responsibility. After telling reporters months ago that the jail is in “quarantine protocol,” and that, “It is not a staffing issue. It is a COVID issue” – all Sheriff Birkhead’s own words, now they deny there is a lockdown at all. Meanwhile, activists say the sheriff has already told them it is in fact a staffing issue.

The Durham jail had a 90-person vacancy in staffing last year. So yes, sounds like a staffing problem, not COVID.

All of this should have been picked up and addressed by the Durham Public Health department and maybe more importantly, the NCDHHS, which is responsible for inspecting all county jails and for the COVID public health response in this state.

An organization going rogue and instituting its own COVID lockdown should have been picked up and penalized by the DHHS. The Durham jail having a 90-employee vacancy should have been penalized. Instead, the report stated the jail had “no deficiencies.”

That’s clear incompetence and corruption at the DHHS.

And you can just imagine what the reaction from DHHS and Durham Health would’ve been if from 2020 to 2022, an organization had done the opposite and refused to comply with the lockdowns and mandates. The reaction would’ve been enormous and overwhelming condemnation. “You are putting everyone’s health at risk!”

But now that mandates have ended and there’s an organization going against the current public health policy of no lockdown, no mandates? Silence.

The ACLU’s response is a shrug. Brushing it off as an issue that’s not fit to be on their desk.

Here is the ACLU-NC’s most recent tweet on incarcerated peoples, from Monday:

Not an issue you’re actively working on, Ms. Stevens?

In January, ACLU-NC actually tweeted, “In 2023, we will continue to fight for the rights of people who are incarcerated in NC and to improve our criminal legal system.”

Apparently not!

A decade ago, the ACLU would’ve picked up this issue immediately and put out robust statements condemning the lockdown and the inhumane treatment of the prisoners. Their legal team would’ve gone to work.

Nowadays? When it’s an opportune time to rah-rah tweet about incarcerated people for support, for donations, the ACLU is front and center.

When it comes to actually doing something to help people? They just can’t be bothered.

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