the following was written by someone outside the jail.
On any given day, at almost any given time, you might see someone outside of the Durham County jail waving, signaling or otherwise communicating with a person inside the jail. If they happen to be lucky enough to be on their ‘walk,’ the person might be in the large full window at the end of their pod. For the rest of the 20 hours of the day, the person is confined to their room, and the window of communication is a thin, rectangular one that is at the high up in the room. Communication by the people outside is full of love, sadness, information, sometimes anger or regret, but it is almost always spirited and emotional.
And to think, if it were entirely up to the sheriff’s department, the county, and others, this communication wouldn’t happen at all. Yes, deputies do occasionally try to tell people they cannot wave or signal to people inside the jail. But if they tried to entirely stop it, they would spend their time doing nothing else.Back in the mid-1990s, however, when the county was planning to build a new jail, one of the components they sought was a design which vastly decreased, if not eliminated, communication by detainees with the outside world. Although it is not clear in looking through old documents what their justifications were at the time, we know that those in power will offer up seemingly reasonable ideas for why they are attempting to enact something that is cruel and unusual.
What they ended up with at 214 S. Mangum St. were very narrow windows in each cell that could only be seen through when a prisoner is on the top bunk. Having a top bunk requires that there must be two detainees in the cell (which is the case in most cells). It makes for an odd downtown décor. “Oh, that’s a jail?” said a person recently walking past on the way to a ball game, happily oblivious. “I was wondering why the windows were so small.” As if larger windows would give more actual freedom to the detainees.
Still, despite the stated goal of stopping communication between inmates and people outside, there is much that is communicated between people on a daily basis, albeit with some lost in translation.
Shanice, whose boyfriend is currently in the jail, says she will just stop by to wave to him when she’s passing by the jail. “We only get to visit with each other once a week, and the visit is SOOOO short,” she says. It’s important for me to just see him. He holds up a sign for me that he made and it lets us be together, even for a couple minutes.”
Asked how he was able to make the sign, given the ban on pencils in cells, Shanice says she doesn’t know, but she’s glad he did.
Others position themselves across from their loved one or friend’s window because they can’t visit. Whether it’s because of the narrow time frame of visiting hours by pod, the way the online visitation fills up so quickly, or because detention officers check IDs for outstanding issues, visiting inside is not an option, so they make window ‘visits’ work.
Brandie, whose husband is locked up, told me she holds this time dear. It seems that with so much going on around her—people going to and fro, cars whizzing past and the train rumbling by—it would be hard to feel connected, but she said she can disregard all those distractions because she has to: her husband is in a tiny cell for most of his hours every day. From across Pettigrew Street, she made various motions. People who don’t know the ‘language’ may not get it, but that doesn’t really matter.
With people outside sometimes very openly communicating with people inside at various times throughout the day and night, you might think detention officers would try to stop them. But the reality is, they are powerless to stop it. Despite the sheriff’s office attempts to cut off or curtail communication at the very visible downtown jail, it hasn’t worked—because those who they are trying to keep down have simply improvised, as those facing oppressive circumstances are apt to do.
Still, occasionally officers will come out and try to throw their weight around, telling a person outside that they must not try to communicate with prisoners. Sometimes, they’ll say this to people who aren’t even doing so. And, predictably, sometimes who gets reprimanded—or worse, threatened—appears to be racialized.
Kay, a Black woman in her 20s who tries to see her love as often as she can, says that sometimes a white officer will mess with her and tell her she has to leave immediately. But not all officers do so. Dora, a young woman who regularly visits, reports an anti-Latino bias that creeps into interactions with officers at the jail.
“My family has been told we had to leave when we were out here, and we weren’t even communicating. The officer said we had to leave, and there were other people around looking up at windows, too, and he didn’t say anything to them.”
Along with hand signals and ‘air texting,’ handmade signs are a way that people on both sides of the window communicate. Prisoners have shown their appreciation for protesters by throwing up impromptu signs. “We (heart) y’all” and “God Bless You” in gratitude, and ones such as “End the Torture,” “Stop the Lockback,” and “IOA—Turn Up!” all buoy outside protesters’ spirits, and strengthen the connection between those inside and outside.
Prisoners make signs just to make comment on what they are seeing outside, too. Recently, across from the jail on Pettigrew Street, I witnessed several cops giving a hard time to a young man sitting up by the railroad tracks. They said he “looked suspicious” and asked why he was in the area, questioning him for more than ten minutes. I was not the only person copwatching, however. During the encounter, a sign suddenly went up in one of the narrow windows across the street. In a beautiful economy of words and letters it spoke to the moment– and for all time: ‘Fuk police,’ it read.