A rendering of Durham’s planned youth detention center. Courtesy of Durham County. 

It originally appeared a done deal, but a group of activists opposed to Durham County’s proposed new youth jail were heartened last month when Brenda Howerton, chairwoman of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, said that a recommendation to delay a nearly $30 million youth detention center project for six months would not be placed on an agenda for the board’s regularly scheduled meeting or work session until January.

But now, opponents of the new youth jail say the county chair’s assurances went left on December 10, when the county commissioners made public a one-page announcement, “Youth Home Expansion Project Nears Approval,” indicating the board would vote the next business day to appropriate funding for the detention center.

On December 13, the board voted unanimously to approve the construction of a $29.9 million youth detention center.

The no-youth-jail activists say they feel betrayed after Howerton told them the board would consider a November 10 recommendation unanimously approved by members of Durham’s Wellness and Safety Task Force to pause the development of the youth detention center.

Not true, Howerton told the INDY. 

“I would never do what they said I did,” she said. 

The board chair added that she’s offended by the activists’ accusations.

“I would never tell the public that something is being taken off the agenda without first consulting with the board and staff,” she said. “The entire board voted to move ahead with the youth home. I chair the board, but I’m not a dictator.”

The task force recommendation asked the county commissioners to delay the youth detention center vote for at least six months to allow for greater public input.

Howerton says although she understands the activists’ concerns, it was important to do “the humane thing for our community” that’s battling new developments with pandemic and an epidemic of deadly gun violence.

Manju Rajendran is interim executive director of Durham Beyond Policing (DBP), a coalition of local groups who want divestment from jails and prisons and investment in evidence-based crime prevention models. She offered a different account of what happened.

During a town hall late last month hosted by DBP, Rajendran asked Howerton if the recommendation from the Durham Wellness and Safety Task Force and an earlier DBP petition outlining its opposition to the construction of the youth jail would be on the agenda of the commissioners’ next regularly scheduled meeting on November 22, or at a future date.

“Our process is that we have public comments on the first Monday of the month and with the upcoming December, we will not have a work session,” Howerton told the DBP director during the meeting. “So it would be January before we have another work session for public comment. If this item is on the agenda, then there’s an opportunity to have public comment. The process is, it’s only during the work session, or it’s when the item is on the agenda.”

But this week, Howerton told the INDY that the DBP account is not accurate.

“I have every word I said written down, and they misunderstood what I said,” the commissioners’ chairwoman said. “That Zoom meeting was recorded. So when I say I got receipts. I’ve got receipts.”

As the INDY previously reported, tensions have run high on both sides of the issue. 

The debate reached a critical point on November 18 during the impassioned, two-hour town hall, “Youth Heal In Communities Not Cages,” that DBP.  

The jail and prison abolitionists were joined by members of the Duke Children’s Law ClinicEmpowered Parents In Community, and the Advancement Project. The coalition challenged the county’s decision to build a detention center as the most effective means of addressing the 2017 suicide death of Uniece Glenae Fennell. The 17-year-old hung herself after she was harassed by older inmates while in custody at the downtown adult detention center. 

At the crux of the county’s support for a new youth detention center is its legal obligation as part of a May 2019 settlement following Uniece’s death requiring the Board of Commissioners “to study, explore, and construct, if feasible, an expanded Durham County Youth Home, or develop some alternative plan for total sight and sound separation between juveniles and adults in Durham County. Only after all reasonable efforts to find an in-county placement solution have been exhausted can Durham County children be housed in an out-of-county facility.”

The county commissioners say Durham’s most troubled youth will benefit from a therapeutic, state-of-the-art secure place for youth. The county leaders say the current youth home is more akin to a jail. They tout the planned construction of a separate, nonsecure assessment center that will provide resources and services to families in crisis, and equip staffers who will work to prevent young people from getting caught up in the legal system.

The planned facility will be built on undeveloped land where the current 14-bed youth home shares space with the offices of Durham County Emergency Management on Broad Street.

Groundbreaking for the new center is set to take place next year. It’s expected to be completed by 2023, and the old youth home will be demolished.

“I tried to explain to the young folk that the county commissioners don’t decide who goes into detention,” Howeron said this week. “What we try to do is have a process in place that ensures [court-sanctioned youth] get the treatment they need so they can go back into the community healed and whole. The facility we currently have was not designed to do that. It’s 40 years old.”

Howerton told the INDY that Durham does not have “throwaway children, even when they do bad stuff. 

“We would not be accountable to the community if we did not create a space where young people can get mental health treatment,” she said. “It’s not either, or. It’s both. We want mental health available for children before and after they commit a crime.”

The commissioners also point to the “raise the age” law, which bars most 16- and 17-year-olds from being automatically charged as adults. The law went into effect in December 2019.

Board members acknowledge, too, an uncomfortable reality here in Durham and across the United States: the soaring rates of oftentimes fatal youth gun violence. The commissioners’ meeting happened in the shadow of shootings hours before in Southeast Durham that killed two teens; 15-year-old Hillside High School student Ariuna Cotton and 19-year-old  Isaiah Carrington, and wounded 17-year-old girl, a 13-year-old girl, a 12-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy.

“In an ideal world there would be no children detained,” county commissioner co-chair Wendy Jacobs said, “and there wouldn’t be children who are shooting each other at three in the morning.”

The new detention center will be built on undeveloped land where the current 14-bed youth home shares space with the offices of Durham County Emergency Management on Broad Street.

Groundbreaking for the new facility is set to take place next year. It’s expected to be completed by 2023, and the old youth home will be demolished.

Detention abolitionists question whether the county has fully explored other alternatives cited in the language of the settlement reached with Uniece’s family that requires the Board of Commissioners “to study, explore, and construct, if feasible, an expanded Durham County Youth Home, or develop some alternative plan for total sight and sound separation between juveniles and adults in Durham County. Only after all reasonable efforts to find an in-county placement solution have been exhausted can Durham County children be housed in an out-of-county facility.”

Late last week, in the DBP statement, Barbara Fedders, an assistant professor and director of the Youth Justice Clinic at UNC Law, stated that nothing in state or federal statutes and or in the 2019 settlement between Durham County and the estate of Uniece Fennell legally obligates the construction of the facility currently under consideration. 

“Building a $30 million new detention facility is a policy choice but it does not appear by any means to be the only way for the County to fulfill its legal obligations,” Fedders said. 

Uniece’s mother, Julia Graves, said during last month’s town hall that she wanted county leaders to imagine alternatives beyond locking children up.

“I would like to see some kind of programs put in, like a wrap-around program that comes into the homes with the families and works with them,” Graves said. “And gets these kids out, and gives them a different view on life, and gives them things to do to be a good product of the community, to have them involved in the community.”

Youth detention opponents say making public an announcement one day before the commissioners’ vote may have fulfilled the county’s legal requirements for public meetings governed by the North Carolina general statutes, but it failed an ethical obligation to members of the community who have questions about the project, and the spirit of a true democracy.

“In a democracy,” DBP members stated in their release, “when the community raises serious concerns, it is the responsibility of elected representatives to pause and listen, not push forward without acknowledging and thoughtfully considering their disapproval.” 

Before Monday’s vote, Monica Wallace, the board’s clerk, read aloud that comment from the 114 public comments that the board started receiving on Saturday afternoon. The comments continued well past a Sunday at 2 p.m. deadline. One letter writer who works with Black and Brown children in an alternative school setting talked about the importance of affordable housing, healthy recreational outlets, and “every stage of the youth punishment system” being counterproductive to adolescent development.

“Prisons hurt us all and in no way prevents violence from happening,” the detention center opponent wrote.

The new youth detention center has garnered the support of Marcia Morey, a retired Durham County District Court judge and current member of the state’s General Assembly. Morey in 2013 helped to start the state’s first misdemeanor diversion program that aimed to prevent 16 and 17-year-olds from entering the adult justice system. The program was launched in 2014, five years before the “raise the age” law went into effect.

Morey said that children who have been charged with violent crimes, and often gun violence should be in a more secure facility for the sake of public safety.

“Judges do all they can to keep children in their homes, or relative placement,” Morey wrote, but nonetheless rely “as a last resort” on secure custody.

“After 18 years as a Durham judge, I know how desperately Durham needs a new youth home,” she added.


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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.