The recent death of a 29-year-old inmate has drawn fresh attention to what’s going on inside the Durham County Detention Facility. Critics and protesters have demanded a community-led investigation of the jail, citing letters from inmates who describe unsafe and unsanitary conditions.
It remains to be seen whether that will come to pass. Today, though, the Durham County Sheriff’s Office announced that the Durham County Department of Public Health conducted its annual inspection of the jail last week, on February 5. Its verdict? Things at the jail are pretty much normal.
The inspection was precipitated by a citizen complaint made on behalf of an inmate. Chris Salter, environmental health division director of the DPH, explains to the INDY:
“The complaint became a topic of concern for some local citizens, and the environmental health division has a standing policy that we investigate any complaint,” Salter says. “The detention center was due for an inspection — by general statute, we’re supposed to investigate it once a year. So while we were there to look into the complaint, we went ahead and did the complete annual inspection.”
The complaint (which can be viewed at the bottom of this post) alleges, among other things, that inmates were being deprived of toilet paper and served maggot-infested potatoes. Salter says he saw no evidence of this.
“I’ve heard the rumors and caught a few things on TV [about the jail], but we hadn’t received any direct complaints until that one came in,” he says. “But what I read in the complaint, about rodent feces and maggots, and what we observed when we there there — they don’t jibe. And based on that, we deemed the complaint invalid.”
Which is not to say the DCDPH didn’t find any violations. Inspectors made note of three demerits: one for a clogged toilet, and two for an improperly sanitized dishwasher. (You can view the report here; the dishwasher has since been repaired.) Under 20 demerits means an approved inspection; between 20 and 40 demerits puts a facility on provisional approval; and over 40 demerits means you’re not approved. In 2015, the jail received 12 demerits.
Tamara Gibbs, spokesperson for the Durham County Sheriff’s Office, describes the outcome as “favorable.” She also provided explanations rebutting allegations in the citizen complaint.
Regarding the presence of worms in the kitchen, as reported by a detainee at the facility on December 17, 2015:
“The maintenance crew with Durham County General Services immediately removed a food service steam table and discovered a broken seal that had allowed moisture and food particles to collect underneath the equipment. The staff immediately inspected and cleaned other kitchen equipment, and determined it was in compliance. General Services repaired the seal on the steam table before returning it to operation. Neither the detainees nor their meals were exposed or compromised during this isolated incident. As an additional precaution, a licensed exterminator treated the kitchen area and found no infestation.”
“The citizen complaint initiated a second review of the kitchen. Again, Public Health inspectors determined all claims in the citizen complaint were unsubstantiated, including reports of animal excrement in kitchen equipment.”
Regarding inmates being denied toilet paper and laundry services:
“The detainees have access to laundry services at least twice a week, but exceptions are made if their clothing is soiled. Toilet tissue is replenished on each floor up to three times a week as needed. There have been incidents in the past where detainees have used toilet paper to clog the plumbing in order to communicate through the pipes. The recent inspection report noted there is an adequate supply of toilet paper.”
Regarding other kitchen sanitation allegations:
“Whenever a complaint or a concern is brought to the attention of the staff at the Durham County Detention Facility, it is investigated and resolved as quickly as possible. The facility has yet to fail an inspection conducted by any of its oversight agencies. When inspectors make recommendations, repairs and equipment upgrades soon follow to keep the facility in compliance with federal, state and local regulations, and more importantly, to maintain the health, safety and security of the detainees. The staff, which includes a Compliance Officer, investigates every claim. Aramark, the food vendor for the Durham County Detention Facility, is also subject to routine inspections and must remain in compliance. Aramark is required to comply with any recommendations or equipment upgrades that inspectors bring to their attention.”
Steve Lorenz of the Inside-Outside Alliance, an organization that has been fiercely critical of the jail’s policies, says he questions how unscheduled the DCDPH inspection was.
“The jail is under a lot of scrutiny right now,” Lorenz says. “And I think a significant portion of the community doesn’t trust the symbiotic relationship between the county health department and the county jail. They know there’s growing support for a community-based investigation into the jail, and this is clearly an attempt to forestall that.”
Salter at the DCDPH says, “They absolutely don’t know we’re coming in until we walk in.”
Inspection complaint below.