The Durham County Detention Facility has been operating under a lockback regime for nearly seven months. Highly valued time out of cells was taken away from all inmates back in March. Through continued struggle, inmates recovered about half the time they used to have by June, but they have had only four hours out of cells per day since then. With a rotating schedule, this has still meant people spend 26 continuous hours in their cells every other day.
Although jail officials have said that full recreation time would never be reinstituted, rumors have floated for a week that a return to two periods of four hours out of cells was forthcoming. Now from inmates themselves comes the news that this is the case. Although the sheriff’s department has not shared this news in any official manner with inmates or with the public, currently all pods are being let out from about 9 am to 1 pm, then again from 3:30 pm until 7:30 pm. Under this schedule, there is no nighttime walk (approximately 9 – 10:30 pm), so it is not a full return to the previous schedule for inmates. Still, it signals a doubling of recreation time—necessary time to make phone calls to loved ones and lawyers, to write letters, get physical exercise, socialize, and shower.
We welcome this news because it definitely will contribute to the health and mental well-being of inmates to be able to be out of cells for more time each day. In a report from the sheriff via the County Manager’s office, the director of the Criminal Justice Resource Center divulged that the lockback caused “an increase in distress in both inmates with and without mental illness.” There is simply no telling the harm the lockback has caused inmates from a health and wellness standpoint.
Inmate accounts of life under the lockback that the sheriff insisted was implemented for “safety reasons” told of increased suicide attempts and deteriorating mental and physical health, less time to do basic and important activities such as shower and write letters, and less physical activity.
A near-end to the lockback is unequivocally a victory for inmates, and it can be directly attributed to their brave protests, their filing of grievance after grievance, their speaking their truths in letters and at visitations, and their kicking doors and other types of organized and wildcat resistance. On the outside, it can be attributed to the hundreds of people who have visibly protested at the jail every Friday for 26 weeks in a row, called and written emails and letters to elected officials and jail officials, showed up at commissioners’ meetings, honked horns in support and otherwise put the jail staff and county on notice in the past six months. While we don’t think it’s to anyone’s benefit to claim easy victories, this is not one: we have struggled very hard and very openly, month after month. It is vital for people to understand that.
Although we welcome the news, it is seven months late and is no more than the partial rectification of an unjust and arbitrary punishment put in place by Durham County Detention Facility officials. Will Lt. Col. Perkins or someone in the sheriff’s department ever acknowledge that the lockback was a form of collective punishment, and that meting out such punishment is never appropriate? Although we welcome the news, the fact that it is not even being reported by the sheriff’s department, nor officially shared with inmates, shows how very little the sheriff and his staff (and the county staff) have learned in this process. It has only been when we, a counter-power of ordinary residents, have demanded accountability from the sheriff, that he has provided any response whatsoever. Although we welcome the news, it is but one concession to basic humanity on their part. We made 12 demands. The concerns that led to those demands, and that led to our questions of the sheriff, and our pressure on county commissioners, still exist, and in some cases have worsened.
The price of a medical visit doubled on July 1, further exacerbating for people the choice between getting treatment and eating something beyond the awful and insufficient food served by Aramark. A ban on pencils in cells still exists. Unsanitary conditions still pervade the jail, with mold growing on the floors and the showers, and no cleaning products are dispensed to inmates. The canteen list still has outrageously marked up prices, and so-called ‘convenience’ fees gouge families and friends even further. Visitation numbers are still down, and visits are difficult to schedule. Inside of this jail, inmates’ physical safety is still constantly under threat, due to the violence of COs and due to constant medical neglect of inmates, especially those with chronic illnesses like diabetes. Critically, we recognize that the historical and present role of our penal system is the containment of black, brown, poor, undocumented, transgender, and queer people, among many others – the racialized and gendered underpinning of the jail is its guiding principle and the condition we revolt against.
An independent investigation of the jail by community people is still desperately needed. We hope one will proceed in the very near future. For now, we are still going to be protesting at the jail, demanding that basic and fundamental needs are met, pushing for inmates to have more of a say in how they are confined, and, not least of all, demanding accountability and transparency from the county detention facility and the sheriff’s department. We invite others to join our growing community in revolt.