Reginald Cunningham called his sister, Teresa Hicks, late Wednesday afternoon after he was charged with violating the conditions of his parole while staying at the Quality Inn on Hillsborough Road in Durham.

Hicks, who was attending a protest in the Cracker Barrel parking lot on the motel’s south side, puts her brother on speakerphone. Cunningham spoke from the Guilford County jail, where he is in custody. 

“They said I was outside and it was unauthorized,” Cunningham told Hicks. “They said I had illegal drugs. They said I wasn’t practicing social distancing.”

Cunningham resided at the hotel from December 5—the day he was released from prison—until he was booked on January 13. As reported in last week’s INDY, the three-story Quality Inn is known as the state’s temporary “COVID motel,” where around 100 other former inmates await their release into the general public. 

Cunningham expected to stay at the motel for two weeks before assignment to a permanent location. But that was seven weeks ago, and, during the phone call to his sister, Cunningham spoke about being denied nutritious food, cleaning supplies, and medications to control his high blood pressure, as well as mental health medications that keep him calm and stable.

In the parking lot, Greg Williams–among more than a dozen volunteers from Rose of Sharon Catholic Workers in addition to family members of detainees staging the protest and press conference–shouted into a megaphone. 

“We are here because of the rats and roaches in that hotel,” he said, standing in front of signs that read ‘Stop Unlawful Imprisonment,’ ‘Stop Abusing Human Rights,’ and a large sign featuring a comment from a former motel resident: “It’s Like They Have No Motivation to Help Us At All.”

“We’re here because of black mold in that hotel,” Williams continued. “We’re here because they are not following CDC protocols. We’re here because COVID is in that hotel. We’re here because DPS is a slumlord. We’re here to let our loved ones know we love them! We see you! We love you! No justice! No peace!”

According to a Catholic Worker press release, the motel is a “death trap, full of roaches, rats, bedbugs, and mold.” The ceilings leak, the release states, the phones don’t work, there’s no hot water and detainees can’t clean their clothes or their rooms and don’t have access to decent food or medical care. They’re not receiving assistance in securing public benefits, or housing or work that they are required to have before they can leave. 

In an email to the INDY, Greg Thomas, a spokesman for DPS, said the department works with the hotel owner to address issues as they arise, including conducting pest inspections and treatment if needed. Thomas said WiFi is available at the motel, residents may request cleaning supplies to use, and nursing staff conducts rounds every day, with a physician on call. Thomas acknowledged that it can be difficult for residents to obtain medications if they run out of the supply with which they left prison, “but we work with their families or in many instances community resources to assist with procuring medication refills,” Thomas wrote. 

“DPS is working diligently to implement a smooth, successful non-congregate housing operation that addresses the reentry needs of homeless individuals released from prison,” Thomas continued. “Every effort is made to assist the residents with permanent housing in their home community. The express purpose of the crisis counselors at the hotel is to help formerly incarcerated people locate housing, employment, and public benefits. For residents without a permanent address, these items can’t be finalized in some instances as quickly.”   

“I got one bag since I’ve been here,” says a resident we’ll call Johnny. He called the INDY on a cell phone and didn’t want his real name used for fear of retaliation; the INDY confirmed his identity, including his prison release date, through public records. “Canned goods, but no can opener. Peanut butter and jelly, but no bread. I asked for hand sanitizer to help keep the COVID down and they told me, ‘Sir, they sell that stuff on Amazon.’”

Johnny arrived at the motel a few days before Christmas, on the day he was released from prison, expecting to stay for two weeks which has since turned into four. 

“It seems like a breach of contract to me,” he says.

In anticipation of Wednesday’s protest, the guards ordered a lockdown and wouldn’t allow residents out of their rooms, Johnny says. 

“They don’t want us to speak with y’all,” he says over the phone. “They got us locked in. We can’t come in the hallway. We can’t talk to nobody. No WiFi, I can’t call social services for food stamps.”

Johnny says when he showed up the motel, he was told he would be given cleaning supplies and a cell phone and that a nurse would visit on Sundays to monitor his health. He was also expecting something that looked like freedom; instead, he got a change of clothes and two pairs of underwear that he washes in the bathtub, plus breakfast, lunch, and dinner from the nearby Cracker Barrel and McDonald’s. 

“They don’t feed us correctly,” he says. “I don’t understand how they can keep us in these rooms. I was released. I’m a free man. I’m homeless, so help me find a place to go. My time was up. Why am I being held like a prisoner? They got us caged in these rooms.”

Wednesday’s protest began shortly after 4 p.m. 

Williams, one of the organizers, says the place is a “COVID concentration camp.”

Motorists who pulled into the entrance of the pale-red brick motel were stopped by armed guards who turned drivers away unless they had credentials to gain admittance. Guards patrolled the parking lot and balcony areas. More armed guards, with the word “PROBATION” stenciled on the back of their uniforms, patrolled the hallways.

The protesters–who described themselves in a press release as a group of “mutual aid activists, and the family, faith communities, friends, and loved ones of former prisoners who are being locked up all over again”–say DPS promised these former prisoners would be given nutritious food, medical care, and counseling while they quarantined for two weeks, and would then be allowed to go home. 

Williams handed the megaphone to Hicks, who turned toward the motel and spoke directly to the residents looking out of their room windows, along with the armed guards standing in the adjoining parking lot and motel balconies.

“I stand here because my brother was released from prison after serving his debt to society,” Hicks said. “He’s a free man but you had him here captive. There are fire hazards in the building, and the residents go to bed hungry every night. My brother has been denied his medications for chronic illnesses and now you’re telling them they have to buy their own medications and they don’t even have a job.”

Just after 4:30 p.m., several police officers arrived and told protesters they had to leave.

Undaunted, the small group of protesters and two legal observers moved to the parking lot of the Hilton Durham near Duke University. 

Cunningham is still on the phone with his sister as she drives over to the Hilton location. Hicks says even though her brother contracted coronavirus that prolonged his stay at the hotel, he had been cleared and was a free man.

“They violated all of my rights,” Cunningham tells his sister. “And now I’m sitting in jail. I’m the bad guy. And I still haven’t had my medications. When I’m not on my medications, I’m in crisis. But they don’t care.”

At around 5:20 p.m., seven police officers arrived at the Hilton parking lot to again tell the protesters they had to leave.

“We will be back,” Williams shouted at the captive motel residents, some of whom have their windows open.

Late Wednesday night, Hicks visited her brother in custody and learned that he had been charged with violating his parole for drug possession. They searched him the day before his arrest and didn’t find any drugs, and he is being held without bail, Hicks says.

“He told them he was willing to take a drug test,” Hicks tells the INDY. “The parole officer refused to give him one. He said he don’t need to give him one.”

Hicks says she thinks DPS retaliated against her brother after she visited an official with the department’s re-entry program.

“He had been complaining about not getting enough food to eat,” Hicks says. “I took him canned food, cleaning supplies, and some snacks. I had to call [the DPS official] because security wouldn’t let me bring him anything. She told me they had already been receiving complaints about him.”

According to Thomas, the DPS spokesman, the only information the department can provide is that “[Cunningham] violated his conditions of post-release supervision and an arrest warrant was issued.”

Johnny, the other motel detainee, knows Cunningham.

“[Cunningham] got locked up because he came out of his room, and told them how he was feeling,” Johnny says. “He was protesting that he was a free man. He wanted his medications and needed help. And these people won’t help him.”

This story has been updated to include responses from DPS. 

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