Despite opposition from two members and an abstention from its chairman, the Durham Human Relations Commission voted to adopt (pending a few minor changes) its review of, and proposed path forward for, the Durham County Detention Facility and, more generally, a local justice system the HRC claims favors whites. The commission began its effort several months after twenty-nine-year-old Matthew McCain was found dead in his prison cell in January 2016.
Among the recommendations that will soon be sent to both the Durham City Council and County Board of Commissioners are calls to eliminate the cash bail system, halt cooperation with immigration officials, scale back video-only visitation measures approved by county commissioners in 2013, and create a civilian review board that would, among other things, provide oversight at the jail.
The Durham County Sheriff’s Office pushed back against the HRC’s claims that video-only visitation was adopted only to turn a profit. “The Sheriff’s Office has no plans to assess a fee for video visitation at the facility,” says spokeswoman Tamara Gibbs. Gibbs adds, however, that officials are considering whether to offer “remote at-home visitation,” which would carry a charge.
DCSO officials weren’t the only ones who felt the report misrepresented the facts. HRC chairman Phil Seib said he was uncomfortable with what he perceived as the report accusing the Sheriff’s Office of “malice.” And commissioner Richard Ford was concerned that the HRC could “just be seen as a megahorn for certain social justice programs.”
But commissioner Ricky Hart, who is African American, drew the strongest reaction when he suggested that allegations of racial bias within the local justice system were overstated. “In the last forty-five days, how many homicides occurred in Durham?” Hart asked. “Six. What was the race of those [involved]?” In other words, if blacks commit crimes at an outsize rate, there will be more blacks behind bars.
This prompted a swift rebuke from Southern Coalition for Social Justice attorney Dave Hall, who pointed out that if the cops patrolled rich, white neighborhoods with the same enthusiasm with which they patrol poor black ones, the data wouldn’t be so askew.
Hart and Ford would later vote against approving the report, and Seib abstained. But thanks to the other members of the board, the HRC’s recommendations will, in the near future, reach local officials.