After Winter Must Come Spring

(this statement is included in a newly published zine by IOA called No More Jail Deaths No More Jail, which you can find here)

A statement from Inside-Outside Alliance, April 2016

Everything is everything / What is meant to be, will be / After winter, must come spring / Change, it comes eventually –Lauryn Hill

The days after Matthew McCain’s death on Tuesday, January 19th were as bleak as any this winter in Durham. On Friday the 22nd, a mixture of snow and ice pummeled the Triangle area. As they often do, media outlets focused singularly on the weather event, despite social media outrage about Matt’s death. But the determination of Matthew’s loved ones, and of those who had witnessed his death by medical neglect, could not be denied, and once the snow and ice had melted, the egregious inaction of jail staff began coming to fuller light. Further, Shakiyla Young, who had all but stopped hoping for a drop of information about the death of her father, Dennis McMurray, identified with the pain and helplessness felt by Matthew’s family and publicly came forward again with her story about her father’s death in the jail a year prior.  

After multiple demonstrations and other actions, including email and social media blasts of county officials, the families of Matthew and Dennis and the broader Durham community continue to struggle for answers about these deaths. As ever, we stand resolutely with these families. Shakiyla Young wants to know what her father was given when he told medical staff at the jail that he couldn’t breathe. She wants video of his time in the jail, and she wants to know what became of his property. She wants communication from jail officials, after being told shortly after her father’s death that Investigator Cox was on the case — then never hearing from him again. We also want to know what detention procedures are in place to recognize symptoms of an overdose and do something about it. Dennis’ overdose could have been treated and it wasn’t, and jail staff and medical officials are at fault for that.

Matthew’s family and loved ones also want video—of the altercation he had with another inmate (plus how it came to happen and how long it went on) and of the morning he died. They want to know if and how detention officers responded to pleas by other inmates on Matt’s behalf. They want a summary of his commissary account deductions. And they want a full report of the medical care he received while he was in the jail. Having pre-existing medical conditions should not have been a death sentence for Matthew when he went to jail, but the fact is he felt his health declining and he feared his death was imminent—and he was right.

 

Who’s to blame?

In public messages the sheriff’s office has been forced to make in the time since Matthew’s death, they have been clear that no detention officer has faced discipline or dismissal for their actions or inactions. They have also gone to great lengths to say what a difficult job detention officers have, and how they have had difficulty recruiting and retaining officers, given the role and the starting salary at DCDF. Further, in a clear attempt to deflect all blame, the sheriff’s office tried to redirect all queries about Matthew’s medical care to the company contracted to provide medical services at the jail, Correct Care Solutions (CCS). In a brief statement to The Indy, the CCS corporate spokesman provided a bland answer that not only didn’t accept any responsibility but also didn’t even address the in-custody deaths at all. CCS is an out-of-state corporation profiting handsomely from providing pathetically subpar medical care to detainees and prisoners at DCDF and many other facilities, and they are embroiled in multiple lawsuits for their role in detention deaths. To be sure, CCS holds much blame.

However, those running the day-to-day operations of the jail should not escape the public’s ire. Sheriff Mike Andrews, Detention Director Natalie Perkins, and Director of Security Couch helped create an institutional culture in which the in-custody deaths of Dennis McMurray, Raphael Bennett and Matthew McCain could occur; they have remained silent about these deaths, which would never have come to light if not for public outcry; and they continue to allow ongoing medical neglect of jail inmates and financial exploitation of inmates and their families. Detention officer Erick Boria was on duty in Matthew McCain’s pod when he died. Numerous witnesses have testified about his willful neglect as well as the retaliatory measures he has taken against inmates who have spoken out since Matthew’s death. Several inmates have called for his dismissal (see Officer Boria has endangered the lives of everyone, page 34 of the zine or here), and we support their demand.

Andrews, Perkins, Couch and Boria should be gone, period, even while we recognize that eliminating them won’t eliminate the problems at the jail — because the jail itself is the problem. Merely going after Andrews and Perkins and Couch and Boria — or, alternatively or simultaneously, Correct Care Solutions — will only serve to individualize a problem that is societal and systemic in scope. In December, Andrews and Perkins were all too happy to offer sacrifice Officers Alston and Smith, who brutally assaulted a female inmate, because they hoped the officers’ firing would show those who weren’t looking too closely that they could manage everything. As long as we think that substituting one manager of racialized violence and oppression for another will get us out of this mess, our boots are still firmly planted in winter.

“Shut the bitch down a.s.a.p.”  

It is telling to read some of the sheriff’s own words about the jail, including the “backgrounder” released in January by the Durham County Sheriff’s Office (DCSO) to quell public outcry and social unrest related to the in-custody deaths. This document states that in 2015 “there were 12 suicide attempts [in the jail], including 8 detainees who were designated as mental health patients.” The DCSO has repeatedly said the jail was not made to house detainees long-term, and that the jail is not adequate to do what the city and county (and the state beyond) are asking it to do. Major Paul Martin goes a step further, saying that many or most of those currently incarcerated in the Durham jail shouldn’t be there. But Martin asserts our beef should not be with sheriff’s department personnel, or with conditions in the jail, but with something beyond. We’re not sure about his motives, but he’s correct, even while he’s utterly wrong to suggest that a struggle against the conditions and treatment in the jail is misguided. Although we understand the problems we face go beyond the walls of the jail, we see in it no redemptive or rehabilitative function. If Martin or Andrews comes pleading for more money come budget time, we should say the same thing we said last year when they asked for more money to “suicide-proof” jail cells (far too late to help Terry Demetrius Lee, who took his own life inside DCDF in March 2013): not only no budget increase but no money for the jail at all.

To best see the spring that is ready to emerge, we should listen to the words of some of those detained in the Durham jail. They call out particularly terrible detention officers (such as Boria), and they talk about not having cleaning products or toilet paper or necessities, except to clean up for special visitors such as inspectors or county commissioners. They also write about wanting to have some say over the conditions of their confinement, and they want their health concerns taken seriously. They display their humanity and their ability to come together with others in the same position as they are. But they also continually express their disdain for the system that locks them up. Of the extraordinarily high bonds that keep people in the jail, one detainee says, “All they have to do is send people home and make sure that we come to court….”

And over and over, they have expressed in different ways a desire for the jail to be a jail no more:

“I have nothing to hide, it’s all true what I’ve said. I could go on and on about this jail. They need to shut this jail down.” 

I personally feel that OSHA should pop up to check things out. I think they’d be surprised at what they’d find, maybe even shut down the jail until further notice.”

“The sheriff’s employees and directors of the jail and courts are directly conducive to the crime rate in Durham. If everyone of the people inside this jail were fired and the jail demolished and a more productive institution rebuilt would this jail be missed? I think not.”

“You can put it in there and use my name. I’m not ashamed nor scared. Well, so far things haven’t changed.. Yes, they need to shut this bitch down a.s.a.p.”

We need look no further than the people whose preventable deaths have animated the recent struggle to understand why a shaking up of administrative staff will not suffice to ensure there will be no more jail deaths. Neither Dennis McMurray nor Matthew McCain was a perfect person, nor a perfect victim. Both were full human beings, loved and loving, and with their own internal struggles—as we all have. And neither one should have been incarcerated.

It is not difficult to understand the decision of Dennis — one year out of prison after a nine-year term and unable to find steady, legal employment —  to ingest the heroin he had when sheriff’s deputies came into his home without a warrant. A guilty charge surely would have meant many more years behind bars, apart from his daughter and his young granddaughter, who in one year had become an important part of his life. When he had difficulty breathing at the jail later, he told medical staff what he had done. And no one—not CCS nor jail staff—did anything to reverse the course of his overdose. Heroin use may be at a crisis level right now, but it’s obvious that incarcerating people is doing nothing to help.

As some mainstream media outlets were happy to trumpet, Matthew was detained on domestic violence-related charges. But charges never tell the whole, or even half, the story. Matthew struggled to manage his anger, and his chronic health issues did not help, but his girlfriend Ashley never pressed any charges against him. One of the charges against him, in fact, was a probation violation for not attending anger management classes — because he didn’t have the money to pay the fees for the class. Ashley attempted to get him out of jail but was denied by the courts. She wanted him to get the help he needed to be able to be the best parent and partner he could be. Tragically, that never came to pass. Was Matthew’s detention from August through January 19th a benefit for society? Did locking up Matthew and keeping him locked up in November, when Ashley pleaded to get him out, somehow prove that the state cares for the well-being of a young Black woman and her children? The answer is no, absolutely not.

The jail is the de facto holding place for numerous people with stories like Dennis’s or Matthew’s. It’s tempting to call it an abject failure, until you stop to think that it’s doing precisely what it’s supposed to do. As Tom-Tom, detained at DCDF for more than 3 years so far, recently wrote: “My point is, ladies and gentlemen, this shit was all part of a plan. It didn’t just so happen to come about. The judicial branch of the government was made to recycle us, to keep us down and them up. Us back and them forward.”

Shut it down—now.

The legal basis for closing the Durham County Detention Facility existed since well before the jail-wide lockback, which began on March 6, 2015. Volumes of evidence show that detainees are neglected or abused medically; the nutritional value of food served there is nil and food sanitation does not follow standards; and families and friends are financially exploited by companies such as Aramark and GTL. Certainly, the circumstances of at least two of the three in-custody deaths in just over a year bolster the case for shutting down the jail. Just a few days after Matthew McCain’s death, then-inmate Shermare Tuck Riley nearly lost her life after an epileptic seizure that she was initially accused of “faking.” Clearly the lives of detainees simply do not matter to the sheriff’s office.

But apart from the legal basis always exists the moral-political basis, enforced by free people acting out their will for a free society. That is, if we don’t want the jail (or the prisons, or the police) to exist anymore, we have the duty to get rid of them. When we are ready to act to shut it down is truly when the birds shall warble their song of spring. When we can be sure that no one else will suffer as Dennis or Matthew did in detention, we will truly pay tribute to them.

 

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