Three weeks ago, members of Inside-Outside Alliance wrote questions for the Durham County Sheriff about the disturbing conditions at the Durham County Jail. Sherriff Andrews’ responses display a callous lack of concern with the conditions prisoners live under and a reluctance to discuss them openly and honestly.
The Sheriff’s department is a surprisingly opaque organization. The Sheriff does not make regular public appearances, have any sort of civilian oversight committee, or take public comments on its policy.
Durham County Commissioners and Sheriff Andrews claimed we had “misinformation” regarding conditions at the Durham County Jail. While County Commissioners take the word of the Sheriff, we listen to the words of prisoners who experience harmful conditions first-hand and write to us. We listen to the family members who visit their loved ones inside. We also read the contracts that the jail has with for-profit corporations, including Aramark, Globaltel, and Correct Care Solutions, which promise low costs to the county while they profit off of prisoners. Based on this information, we have found the Sheriff’s responses to our questions and concerns lacking. The following are a selection of our replies.
Despite the Sheriff’s repeated attempts to dismiss the lockback, it is still occurring. The Sheriff has stated that the prisoners used to get 10 hours out of their cells per day. They currently get 4 hours out per day. This is less than half of what they used to receive. The Sheriff did not answer whether this would end or what its rollback would look like. The Sheriff claims it is not collective punishment, however, when one restricts the freedom of an entire group for the actions of a few that is commonly understood as collective punishment.
Regarding our questions about fees for phone use, the Sheriff’s response gives misleading information. The Durham Jail changed telephone providers from Pay-tel to Globaltel a week before they published their response, but they still gave figures from Pay-tel. Globaltel has higher rates and charges higher fees for services. This is concerning as the majority of people currently held in the jail are only there because they are unable to pay bail or bond. This further exploits those that are already financially insecure.
One of the most shocking and appalling responses the Sheriff’s office gave was regarding the question of attempted suicides, clearly evading responsibility for the negative effects of the lockback on prisoners’ mental health. We have heard from inmates of at least three attempted suicides. Sheriff Andrews claims, “there has not been an increase in suicide attempts since the recreation schedule was adjusted”. This response evades the question of whether there have been suicide attempts. How many attempted suicides happened before the lockback? How many during? Further, he acknowledges that they do not report attempted suicides to any regulatory body outside the jail. All other publicly funded institutions must report attempted suicides, yet the jail does not. This is another instance that demonstrates the opacity in which the Durham jail operates.
Councilman Page stated that he would be “totally surprised” if our claims were substantiated. But what does it mean to him to substantiate our claims?
We have stacks of letters of prisoners complaining that the food is terrible, does not meet diabetics’ needs, and leaves them hungry when they go to bed. Sheriff Andrews says that the jail follows dietary guidelines.
We have stacks of letters complaining of medical neglect; Sheriff Andrews says the Jail is compliant with regulations.
We have stacks of letters about grievances never being investigated or replied to, Sheriff Andrews claims that all are addressed.
We have numerous accounts of mail from families not being delivered and stacks of our own letters that were returned months after being sent without proper notification of why they were returned. Sheriff Andrews says they only block mail that is a security concern based on “correspondence”, without a clear definition for what that means.
We claim that the jail’s fees are exploitative and place a major burden on prisoners who are overwhelmingly people with limited resources. Sheriff Andrews only acknowledges that these fees exist and are legal.
So we ask the Commissioners again what more can we do to substantiate our claims? It is the word of the prisoners against the word of their jailer, Sheriff Andrews. If we only listen to Sheriff Andrews, if we never give weight to the prisoners’ claims and independently investigate them, we give the Sheriff license to do whatever he wishes in the jail. This is a recipe for abuse.