Wendy Jacobs, vice chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, was moved to tears this week over an email that likened the county’s planned juvenile detention center to a Nazi concentration camp.

In December, the board voted unanimously—over the objections of activists—to fund construction of a new 36-bed facility that would replace the existing 14-bed youth center on Broad Street. 

The email was authored by a member of Carolina Jews for Justice (CJJ), which opposes the $30 million project. 

“As a Jew, I was very disturbed to receive [an] email from Carolina Jews for Justice comparing the youth home to a Nazi youth concentration camp,” a distraught Jacobs told her fellow commissioners at a board meeting Monday. “And again, I’m concerned about misleading information or lack of information causing harm.”

Abby Lublin, CJJ’s interim director, sent the INDY a copy of the email.

“When I was learning about the holocaust in Hebrew school, my dad told me that my grandparents survived the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau,” the email began.

The unidentified author goes on to surmise that the new youth detention center that’s expected to be completed by 2023 “may look nothing like what my grandparents went through in Southern Poland, but we know the hurt and trauma that will be felt by this generation, too, of kids who are forced to spend their time locked up in confinement.”

“Our babies deserve better,” the email concluded, with a grainy black-and-white photo of small children in striped garb being liberated from Auschwitz at the end of the statement.

Durham County’s planned construction of a youth home and separate non-secure assessment center for troubled children is a far cry from the horrors endured by those imprisoned at Auschwitz, where more than 200,000 children died.

On Tuesday, CJJ issued a statement to the INDY. The statement noted that the group had shared “the personal story of one of our members, including their family’s Holocaust history, which is their personal motivation for wanting to take action towards non-carceral care here in Durham.”

The group said they understood why the personal story “came across to Commissioner Jacobs as a historical comparison and was upsetting.”

“We are sorry for not being more careful about the impact of our words, and we welcome the opportunity to learn and grow.”

But the statement also notes that “the Holocaust and its generational impacts is a big reason we work to build a more just, fair, and compassionate North Carolina, and we respect the many different ways that Jewish North Carolinians hold the Holocaust in our family stories.”  

Legacy of Uniece Fennell

At the crux of the controversy is a divide on how to best address the county’s legal obligation following the 2017 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. 

County commissioners have said their support for a new youth detention center is part of a May 2019 settlement with Fennell’s family, a settlement that required officials “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.”

The commissioners also point to the state’s “Raise the Age” law, which created the need for more capacity at juvenile-only detention centers since the law bars most 16- and 17-year-olds from being charged as adults. The law went into effect in December 2019. 

The 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 in December happened in the shadow of a shooting 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 four others, including a 12-year-old girl. 

The commissioners say an assessment center 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.

“In an ideal world there would be no children detained,” Jacobs said hours after the shootings, “and there wouldn’t be children who are shooting each other at three in the morning.”

However, Durham Beyond Policing (DBP), a nonprofit coalition of jail and prison abolitionist, and other organizations have challenged the county’s assertion that a new detention center would be the most effective means of addressing youth violence and question whether the county has fully explored alternatives cited in the language of the settlement, including evidence-based crime prevention models. 

Lingering Divide

Tensions have run particularly high in recent months, beginning with a virtual town hall hosted by DBP in November, when even Fennell’s mother questioned the wisdom of building a new detention center.  

“We believe the Durham County commissioners when they say they care about [the county’s] youth,” Naana Ewool, a DBP member, told the INDY this week. “But a youth detention center doesn’t align with the community’s input.”

In its statement to the INDY, CJJ noted that it was “critically important” to remain focused on the “high stakes issue” before the county: millions of dollars proposed “for confining children while mental healthcare and non-carceral therapeutic care for children and youth in the city of Durham remains woefully underfunded.”

During Monday’s work session, Jacobs said she read nearly 80 public comments submitted to the Board and that DBP appeared to be the source of the misleading information.

The email to Jacobs included a link to a DBP call-to-action letter published online shortly before Monday’s meeting. The post asked supporters to submit letters to the board to voice their disapproval for a new youth home and to “request that they [the board] remedy their mistake by issuing a moratorium on construction and developing an alternative plan for a Youth Wellness and Community Center.”

“Despite the euphemistic name, the Durham Youth Home is an imprisonment facility for children ages 8 to 17,” the DBP letter reads. “Our District Attorney’s office, elected by the people of Durham, has offered children and youth access to alternative pathways for accountability and healing, so the rate of children sent to secure detention has declined in recent years. There has been no timely reasonable justification for the expansion of jail beds, but if the expanded youth jail is built using precious resources our County needs for youth wellness and care, that’s where our Black and Brown children and youth will get sent.”

During Monday’s work session, Jacobs noted that the board doesn’t decide whether to send a child to secured custody in a county youth home. But an expanded youth center in Durham can help keep those children closer to home.

“This board has made a decision to provide a youth home here in Durham County because we want to support our children and families,” she said. “If we do not have a youth home in Durham County, the situation does not go away. Our children [and] our youth will be sent to another county.”

Jacobs said commissioners have considered and supported many of the suggestions from the public and that $200 million of the county’s $500 million budget has been allocated for the well-being of its children. She also noted that delaying the youth home’s construction will increase building costs by at least $4 million.

Jacobs also clapped back at DBP’s assertion that the commissioners did not seek public input before approving the construction of the new youth home, noting that the need for the facility dates back to 2002 and the issue has been on the board’s agenda 24 times since 2015.

“This has been a publicly discussed issue for many, many years,” Jacobs said.

Ewool, the DBP member and graduate student with the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work, said that just because the item has been “on the agenda alone doesn’t make it immediately accessible to the people who are most directly affected by the issue.”

Ewool added that DBP only heard about the construction plans last fall, when one of its members spotted it on the county’s capital improvement plan.

“Everyone we talked to is shocked by the youth jail,” she said. 

CJJ’s statement to the INDY, meanwhile, noted that over 100 Durham residents submitted public comments prior to Monday’s commissioner work session “expressing concerns about this use of our taxpayer funds, but their voices were excluded from the room again.”

“Regardless of how each of us relates to this issue personally, we all must listen to and heed the very real concerns that Durham residents have about the new facility.”

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