Problems at the jail took center stage in the 2018 primary for Durham County sheriff. Under incumbent Mike Andrews’s administration, nine people had died in the facility, three by suicide, and Andrews frequently clashed with protesters. When Clarence Birkhead defeated Andrews by a 2–1 margin, it was a mandate to do things differently. 

The jail’s population has been decreasing for years, down from about six hundred a day a decade ago to an average of 481 in fiscal year 2016. On Sunday, about two months into Birkhead’s term, it housed 395 people. That’s not his doing. He credits judges, the District Attorney’s Office, and diversion programs for working to keep people out of the system. 

But he wants to overhaul the jail’s operations to build relationships between staff members and detainees and help detainees leave better off than they came in. 

The first tangible reform on Birkhead’s agenda is to finish modifications started in the late nineties to reduce suicide risks. It took nearly twenty years for the Durham County Sheriff’s Office to modify the windows six detainees used to hang themselves. Nearly five hundred HVAC grates and 159 beds still need to be replaced. The remaining work should be completed in about nine months. 

More broadly, however, Birkhead hopes to change the facility’s culture and run it as a direct supervision facility, a concept introduced by the National Institute of Corrections in the 1980s.

The Durham County Detention Facility was designed as a direct supervision facility when it opened in 1996, which means that it’s built to encourage continuous interaction between detainees and guards. But the second element of direct supervision—how those interactions should take place—was never fully implemented. 

Under direct supervision, jail staff members place more trust in detainees, offering incentives for positive behavior rather than simply punishing bad behavior. The idea is to create a community with social norms detainees are expected to meet, and where officers are more attuned to the people in their care and can spot budding problems. 

So instead of rationing toilet paper on designated days, jail staffers would make supplies available to grab as needed. Instead of making detainees earn “privileges” like TV time or phone time, they’d all start out with those privileges and only lose them if they caused problems. Instead of locking an entire pod in their cells if a detainee acts out, only that individual would face consequences. Eventually, officers wouldn’t even escort detainees around the facility. 

In 2016, following regular protests against conditions at the jail, Andrews asked the NIC to conduct an operational assessment of the facility. The NIC reviewer notified the jail’s administrators that the jail wasn’t operating as a true direct supervision facility and offered to provide free training, which began in January 2018. Andrews embraced the idea, but Birkhead has given it new energy, jail officials say. 

“Direct supervision allows for that interaction where it’s not just us against them, where they’re locked up and we tell them what to do,” Birkhead says. 

A 2006 review of research on direct supervision facilities found they are “consistently perceived by staff and inmates to have safer environments and in fact experience fewer violent or security-related incidents.” 

The evidence was less clear, however, on whether detainees in direct supervision were less likely to re-offend or whether employees have more job satisfaction. 

Birkhead says the facility needs more staff to fully implement the model—and it needs staff members who see working in the jail as more than just a stepping stone in their careers. In recent years, DCSO recruits had to start in the jail in order to move to other positions. As a result, the facility frequently lost staffers to agencies willing to put them on the streets. From now on, Birkhead says, the DCSO will recruit detention and patrol officers separately.

Right now, the agency has the budget for 240 positions, 216 of which are filled. The DCSO has asked county commissioners for another 29 employees in next year’s budget to fully implement direct supervision. 

In the current system, officers rotate among the housing pods on a particular floor. Under direct supervision, they would stick with a pod for two or three months; administrators are still pinpointing a timeframe that would allow detainees and staff to strike a rapport without burning out or becoming too friendly. 

It’s going to be an adjustment for detainees as they get more autonomy and for staff as they find the balance between being mentors and being in charge. The administration is implementing more activities, such as talent shows and chess tournaments (high school equivalency and life-skills classes are already offered). Officers will be trained in conflict resolution and verbal de-escalation, as well as how they should conduct themselves with detainees, regardless of what charges they may face.

“We have to instill in them it’s not your job to be judge, and it’s not your job to treat them any differently than anyone else in that facility,” says Colonel Anthony Prignano, the detention director.

Of course, the facility is still a jail—there are rules, consequences, and a power structure. But Birkhead hopes the direct supervision model will improve the quality of life for both officers and detainees, and reduce the likelihood that people will be detained again.

“Hopefully those soft skills of being a part of something bigger than themselves, being responsible for their own behavior but knowing that it could have an impact beyond them—hopefully, that translates when they’re released,” he says.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that towel racks need to be replaced as part of modifications to reduce suicide risks in the jail. All towel racks have been modified.

Contact staff writer Sarah Willets by email at, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @sarah_willets.