More than 350 people and nearly 30 organizations have signed an open letter petition asking Durham County judicial officials to address what they describe as a “crisis” at the Durham County jail, where all of the facility’s detainees are “confined alone in a cell for 21 to 23 hours per day, everyday.”

In early March of last year, Durham city and county officials ended a mask mandate about two years after the first COVID-19 cases were reported in Durham.

However, county sheriff Clarence Birkhead, whose office oversees the detention center, told the INDY this week that the facility is still operating under pandemic protocols. 

The sheriff explained that the pandemic protocols remain in place at the facility because it is a congregate setting where “many detainees have untreated or uncontrolled chronic illnesses which place them at a greater risk for COVID complications.” 

Birkhead said several people in custody have tested positive for COVID during intake screening and detainees are tested weekly, and there has been “a recent spike” in cases at the facility.

“Our entire facility is currently under quarantine protocol, and we have re-opened a pod specifically for COVID-isolation purposes,” Birkhead stated in a Tuesday email to the INDY.

“Our facility encourages our detainees to wear masks, frequently hand wash, and to consider receiving COVID vaccinations and boosters,” he added. 

“The facility also requires social distancing, and this is achieved through reducing the number of detainees who are outside of their cells at a given time. Each detainee has time outside of their cells at least twice a day. Through the expansion of our tablet program, our detainees can send and receive emails, engage in video calls (similar to Facetime), read books, watch movies, play games, take courses, and participate in other online programming.”

Birkhead said there’s the added challenge of monitoring the 371 men and women in custody with an ongoing, nationwide law enforcement and detention staffing shortage. Still, the sheriff said the staffing shortage “has not impacted our detainee care and housing.”

“It is not a staffing issue,” Birkhead added. “It is a COVID issue.”

The petitioners agree, and say that their ask “is not a request for increased staffing but a response to a crisis situation.”

The petition was organized by Durham activists Andrea “Muffin” Hudson and Marcia Owen. The petition is addressed to the county’s judges and magistrates, the public defender’s office, the city’s police chief Patrice Andrews, county sheriff Clarence Birkhead, and county district attorney Satana Deberry.

Birkhead says that he and members of his staff have met with Hudson and Owen several times since he was elected in 2018, and last spoke with them in November. He said his office has “a good working relationship with them and other community advocates and organizations.”

“As sheriff, I have always reached out to the community I serve for solutions,” he added.

But apparently, Hudson and Owen do not think the sheriff and other judicial officials are responding to the issue in a timely or effective enough manner. Their petition letter asks the officials “to address immediately the emergency detainees are experiencing in the Durham County Detention Center.” 

The petitioners note that while they understand that “COVID protocols necessitated reducing the detainee population significantly, as well as confining detainees in solitary cells for 21 to 23 hours every day,” the petition argues that spending 21 to 23 hours a day confined alone in a cell is harmful to anyone, but the issue is exacerbated because about 67 percent of the people in the county jail “suffer from mental illness and are particularly harmed by isolation.”

Additionally, the petition states that even with the easing of pandemic restrictions, detention center staffing shortages have given cause to maintain policies of what is tantamount to “prolonged solitary confinement for the jail’s entire detainee population of 350 to 400 people.”

The petitioners assert that the issue could be relieved by “reducing the jail population by at least 100 individuals.” 

“Durham’s values and mission require us to desist from our present practice of confining mentally and financially vulnerable residents in solitary cells for a minimum of 21 hours a day,” the petitioners added.

The petitioners say the reduction “will balance the staff shortage and will allow detainees out of their cells, available for services and able to participate in their release.”

The activists in the petition recommended mental health and reentry services be provided outside the detention center. 

Birkhead, however, pointed to a battery of resources outside of the jail that his office relies on to address mental health and reentry services throughout his tenure as the county’s chief law officer. Those resources and services include “great relationships” with Durham Tech, businesses, and other local organizations—“including the pioneering work” of the Sheriff’s Medication Assisted Restorative and Treatment Program (SMART).

Birkhead said his office has also established a peer support program and works closely with Public Health’s Formerly Incarcerated Transition (FIT) Program and the local reentry council. 

“I will continue to work with our community partners to provide services to our detainees and the formerly incarcerated in an effort to reduce recidivism,” Birkhead said in the email. 

The petition further notes that most of the people in the county jail are awaiting trial, have not been convicted of a crime, and that the cash bail system ensures that only those without financial resources stay in jail before going to trial.

Sarah Willets, a spokesperson with the county district attorney’s office, said DA Deberry determined the jail population neared 400 detainees at the end of last month, and that the office had already started working with the sheriff’s office, the public defender’s office, and judges to “step up existing procedures for regularly reviewing the detention population.”

Willets said the steps undertaken include meetings to review individuals being held on low bonds for potential bond modification and “inviting an open dialogue with the public defender’s office regarding specific individuals who may be appropriate for bond modification or resolution of their case.”

Willets added that “while prosecutors may recommend release conditions, judges ultimately set them.”

Willets said Deberry received the petitioner’s letter in mid-December, and the district attorney had “previously met” with Hudson and Owen, “and shares their concern for the well-being of those confined in the jail, as well as employees.”

Willets said the DA’s office “continues to work with court partners to ensure pretrial detention is reserved for individuals who pose a safety risk, rather than those who are simply detained due to poverty, mental illness, substance use,” or are unhoused.

The petition adds that the jail’s staff shortages are not expected to be remedied in the foreseeable future. 

“Collectively you were able to reduce the detention center population at the onset of the pandemic, and now we’re asking you to please do it again, immediately,” it states.

In 2018, prior to the pandemic, the average jail population was 475, according to the district attorney’s office. That number dropped to 393 in 2019, and fell again to 305 in 2020, during the height of the COVID crisis. The average was 367 last year before the spike in December.

You can read the letter here  and sign it here.

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