Darrell Wayne Kersey died on September 16 after being sick for a month with COVID-19. Kersey contracted the deadly virus while being held in the Durham County Detention Facility. As we know, COVID-19 is a global health crisis that impacts us all, but cages are incubators that put people on the inside at a significantly higher risk of infection than the general population. If Kersey hadn’t been confined in a cage during a pandemic, he might not have gotten COVID-19. He might have had the opportunity to live.

The conditions of our jails are insufficient and inhumane. These conditions reproduce cycles of harm which devalue human life and disproportionately exploit poor people and communities of color. Incarcerated individuals are not receiving adequate sanitation or necessary care, be it for pre-existing disabilities, mental health, or COVID-19. We cannot afford to treat anyone as expendable.

The Durham County Jail currently holds more than 300 people who are at serious risk of dying of COVID-19, often because of a few hundred dollars in bail money. 

Here are a few of their accounts: 

 “The first two weeks I was here, I didn’t receive medication or [a] CPAP machine. I have a condition that causes me to pass out. When I asked for assistance, COs [corrections officers] just laughed and left me on the ground. I have a sleep disability & PTSD and some other mental conditions that I cannot receive treatment for while I’m in this facility. The medication I need, they won’t provide. My hand is also broken. I have a bone poking out the side. (I was supposed to have surgery for it.) I go days without sleeping because of my medical condition and I am in constant pain.” —J.M.

“It has been horrible. They switched our visitation system, so now it’s hard to see family. And the COs talk to us like we are animals. We have no rights in here, and we barely see our lawyers.”—A.L.

“It’s stressful. It’s messing with me mentally, physically, emotionally. Not knowing if or when you’ll ever make it home.”—S.J.

“Instead of letting our phone calls to family be free—to rest homes, hospitals, and home as well—they charge us, making us buy the phone cards. A $10 card costs $17, a $20 card costs $27. We are here fighting COVID-19; a lot of these guys have children who are sick, and mothers and fathers too. Are we going to stand by and let people die and get sick with COVID-19 here in jail and our prison system?”—B.P.

This is not the time to try to make decisions about who should live and who should die. On average, 70 percent of the prisoners in jails—unlike prisons—have not been convicted of a crime. They are sitting in cages awaiting trial because they cannot afford to pay their bail. 

We envision and build a world beyond cages—one beyond demonization, beyond dehumanization, devaluation, and constant, fatal abuse from those who claim to offer protection. We have seen too many times that this system is flawed to the very root. Jails do not provide what people need to live. We cannot live without our lives. If we hope for life during or after COVID-19, then we need immediate decarceration. 

Learn more about the Durham chapter of Southerners on New Ground (SONG) at southernersonnewground.org.

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.