For more than a month,demonstrators have picketedevery Friday at the DurhamCounty Detention Facility,protesting new jail policiesthat confine inmates to their cellsfor 22 hours every day.
But on Monday, the Durham County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail, said the policy will continue, no matter the controversy. “Safety must be the primary driving factor, safety for detainees as well as detention officers and visitors,” said Sheriff’s Office Maj. Paul Martin. Until March, prisoners could walk the jail’s common area for 50 hours per week, or about seven hours a day. But DurhamCounty Sheriff Mike Andrews—pointing to increasing violence and threats toward jail officers—ordered new restrictions limiting that time to two hours per day, every other day. “It’s degrading, it’s intimidating, it’s oppressive,” said Cynthia Fox, whose 21-year-old son is incarcerated there. Like Fox’s son, most of the 545 inmates are awaiting trial. A small number of prisoners are serving short sentences or are waiting to be transferred to another facility. Martin said the Sheriff’s Office changed its protocol earlier this year after it received information that inmates were planning assaults, although officials did not say on whom. Martin says law enforcement later found corroborating evidence, although he declined to release the source of that information. There are more than 100 validated gang members, 50 or more persons awaiting trial for murder and approximately 100 detainees seeking mental health treatment in the jail, Martin said. Citing improving conditions, Andrews—who could not be reached for an interview—has gradually rolled back the restrictions. In late April, he said prisoners could leave their cells four days a week, up from three. And last month, the sheriff agreed to allow prisoners to leave their cells for two hours each day. That policy complies with state law, which requires local jail inmates be allowed to leave their cells at least three days a week for one hour at a time. But Fox said it’s unjust to enforce such restrictions, considering many detainees, like her son, have yet to be convicted of any crime. “If they are going to punish people who are causing trouble there, why not punish those people instead of everybody?” she said. “What happened to innocent until proven guilty?” Critics compare the policy to solitary confinement, the controversial prison practice sequestering an inmate for 23 hours a day. Since the new policy went into effect, there have been two attempted suicides reported at the jail, although one immediately followed an inmate’s sentencing. In addition to asking for Andrews to revoke the new policy, detainees’ families and the prisoners rights group Inside- Outside Alliance, which shares members with groups such as the Prison Books Collective, is calling for improved inmate health services, increased visitation and an independent investigation of the jail. While Andrews’ office has acknowledged the new policy limits prisoners’ access to the jail’s library, it claims the crackdown has not affected visiting hours or any rehabilitation programs or religious services there. Inside Outside plans to protest Friday at the jail, from 6–7 p.m., and at a June 8 budget public hearing before the Durham County Board of Commissioners.