Class War on the Color Line: Reform and Repression at the Durham County Jail

More than a year after the Sheriff’s department’s murder-by-medical-neglect of Matthew McCain, the Durham County Jail is, once again, in the news.  On Tuesday, January 3, after receiving letters from almost a hundred detainees and after three individuals blocked the entrance to the jail on the night of November 18, declaring it #ANightWithNoDetentions, the Durham Human Relations Commission released ten recommendations for how to improve conditions at the plantation on Mangum street.  Some of these, most notably that a community-based research team be allowed to do a survey in the jail, were things that detainees, their families, and the community at large have been demanding for a long time.  Others were extrapolations from what detainees wrote to the commission, and what members of the public said in a forum the HRC held on September 15 of last year, including concerns about mental health, corporate price-gouging of detainees and their families, bail, and the Sheriff’s department’s cooperation with ICE.

Then, on January 6, the News and Observer reported that the jail will move to video visitation this summer and that retrofits are already underway.  Inside-Outside Alliance has known for some time that this was in the pipeline – Global Tel’s latest contract to provide phone service in the jail includes a provision for them to run a video visitation system – but we’ve never had a definite timeline before.  Now it appears that, over the course of this summer, the jail will be retrofitted and its policies rewritten so that in-person visitation will be eliminated and replaced exclusively with visitation-via-videoscreen.  It should go without saying that depriving detainees of even the limited in-person interaction with friends and loved ones that they now experience at visitation is the height of inhumanity even for an institution like the Sheriff’s department that has raised contempt for human life to the level of a ghastly art form.  We should also note that GTL advertises video-visitation as a way to derive profit from and reduce the costs of inmate visitation.

Back to Basics

Before we ask what is to be done about all of this, we need to ask the more fundamental question, what is going on?  Just what has the HRC recommended?  What sorts of opportunities and challenges does it hold?  And what does that have to do with this latest threat to the life, freedom, and dignity of the people the Sheriff’s department keeps locked up in the middle of downtown?  As IOA did nearly two years ago in our What We Believe. What We Want set of demands issued during the jail-wide lockback, the HRC recommendations explicitly oppose video visitation and raise a number of important concerns, for example, about the ways that bail makes having money a criterion for whether a person will be locked up or free.  However, they also raise the spectre of “reform-by-expansion” – a specter which haunts all abolitionist organizing.  For example, the HRC recommends abolishing cash bail, touting the pre-trial release programs of Charlotte and Washington DC as models; however, both of these programs include increased electronic surveillance, increased policing, and a massive bureaucracy of social workers and parole officers backed up by the armed power of the state – an expansion, not a reduction of oppression.  But they say nothing about the forms of repression that can accompany other forms of pre-trial release in places like Charlotte and Washington DC (which the recommendations explicitly tout as models).  Right now, in Durham, people who can pay cash bail are released, while people without money are “held” in the jail.  But we must wonder: if the latter are given pre-trial release, will they experience the same freedom that the former currently pay for?  Or will they be subjected to new forms of unfreedom?

What the HRC recommendations (and other liberal reformist approaches) lack is an understanding of the jail – and the whole prison system – as an instrument of class war, and specifically class war on the color line (where class wars are always fought in America).  Swapping out one set of corporations for another to “provide services” in the jail, switching cash bail for some other form of control, and providing “transparency” by making the jail a place to give tours will not break, nor even loosen, the chains that bind our comrades currently locked up on Mangum.  In this sense, they are part of the same pattern as the move to video visitation, which is a function of the Sheriff’s unchecked power and commitment to profiting off of prisoners, which the recommendations fundamentally do not challenge.  We must seize the opportunity offered by these recommendations to bring a critical, abolitionist agenda to Durham County: the abolition of bail and all alternative forms of conditional pre-trial release, the removal of private corporations and their bottom lines from the jail, funding for mental health and substance abuse treatment through communities rather than through the jail, and the complete severing of all law enforcement ties with ICE.

From Crisis-Management to Abolitionism

The imminent move to video visitation can make it difficult to see where there is space to insert such an agenda.  What we must remember is that, while the jail continues to pile inhumanity upon inhumanity, prisoners and their accomplices continue to resist.  Through these resistances, they/we create a sense of crisis for the Sheriff’s department.  Their response is to narrate a crisis and, then, to propose a solution to their crisis – whether it is to take pencils away from detainees, institute a jail-wide lockback, move to online visitation scheduling, or threaten to reduce detainees and their visitors to faces on a computer screen. When the Sheriff makes a “crisis management” move like these, the temptation for us friends of prisoners on the outside is to “drop everything” to oppose the latest inhumanity.  There exists a temptation to move into a “crisis mode” and drop abolitionism in favor of emergency management of the situation that abolitionists seek to do away with.  Instead of shifting into the “crisis mode” of the state (whether the Sherff’s Department, County Commissioners, or City Council), we should say: “We won’t pay for your crisis!”  We must organize to intervene in situations of apparent “crisis” like the prospect of video visitation – and we will.  IOA will fight video visitation by any means necessary.  But we must always seek to convert these situations of “crisis management” into occasions for abolitionist politics.  Taking the relay from prisoners’ ongoing resistance, we on the outside must campaign to oppose video visitation in the context of a broader abolitionist rearticulation of the HRC’s recommendations, fighting for bail abolition as one step on the way to prison abolition (or at least putting the Durham jail out of business).  We must not give an inch, as we know the jailers will not.  We must press on in our struggle for love and freedom until we break every chain.


One thought on “Class War on the Color Line: Reform and Repression at the Durham County Jail

  1. Pingback: Call In to Protect Visitation Rights at Durham County Jail on Monday, February 27th. | johnhdavisdotcom

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