On March 20, 2019, Julia Graves filed a civil lawsuit in federal court against Durham County that claimed the sheriff’s office and county jailers’ neglect led to the wrongful death of her 17-year-old daughter, Uniece Glenae Fennell, who died by suicide at the downtown detention center.

County detention officers found Uniece hanging from a bedsheet attached to the bar across the raised window of her cell on the fifth floor of the detention center. At the time of her death, Uniece was a minor being detained among adult inmates, Graves stated in the wrongful death complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina in Greensboro.

Uniece died March 23, 2017. She had been in jail for more than a year after she was one of three people charged in a drive-by shooting that killed a 19-year-old.

A May 2019 settlement with Durham County included a provision requiring the Board of Commissioners “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. Only after all reasonable efforts to find an in-county placement solution have been exhausted can Durham County children be housed in an out of county facility.”

Durham County commissioners in recent days have pointed to their legal obligation to address Uniece’s death as one of the reasons behind their support for the construction of a new and expanded $30 million youth detention center that will house 35 to 40 juveniles. Architectural designs also indicate the detention center space could be expanded to house 60 children awaiting the resolution of their criminal court cases.

The new detention center will be built on undeveloped land where the current 14-bed youth home shares space with the offices of Durham County Emergency Management on Broad Street.

Groundbreaking for the new facility is set to take place next year. It’s expected to be completed by 2023, and the old youth home will be demolished.

Last week, Uniece’s mother questioned the wisdom of building a new detention center during a virtual, two-hour town hall, “Youth Heal in Communities, Not Cages,” hosted by members of Durham Beyond Policing (DBP), a coalition of local groups who want divestment from jails and prisons and investment in evidence-based crime prevention models.

Graves described a West Coast program that offers wraparound services to troubled youth and their families. One of the key elements of the program are vouchers allowing children to participate in martial arts, cheerleading, basketball, and vocational training.

“I think that would make more sense, stuff like that, than spending $30 million,” Graves said. “Add a few more beds, or remodel the current facility. But 60 [beds] is a little bit too much. Because you will fill those [beds] and it will be with mostly minorities. But it’s not helping.”

Emotions ran high during the town hall as participants described a juvenile justice system that failed them and how responsive mental health intervention early on could have made all the difference. One mother, a single parent of four children struggling to make ends meet, talked of seeking mental health for her daughter who lit fires in the living room, became violent with her siblings, showed signs of kleptomania, began to hear voices, and was in and out of emergency rooms, only to be told her child “had no obvious signs of mental health challenges.” Another young woman described “the psychiatric side of incarceration” that’s “disguised as rehabilitation.”

Toward the end of the town hall, organizer and moderator Ronda Taylor Bullock asked everyone to “take some deep breaths.”

Several county commissioners present at the town hall, along with the current youth home’s director Angela Nunn, while sympathetic, said the present facility is not a secure setting for troubled children.

Wendy Jacobs, cochair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, said that Nunn has been telling the board since 2002 that the condition of the current youth home is “not OK” and that renovations of the facility are not cost effective.

“What we have now is more like a jail,” Jacobs said. “If we don’t want a new one, the old one will close down, then our youth who are court-ordered will be sent out of the county,” away from the support of their families, local mental health services, and the public schools they may have been attending.

Brenda Howerton, chair of the board, pointed to an even more dire and  uncomfortable reality: the widely reported increase in violent crime among young people in Durham County.

A 2015 report made public last week on the county website indicates that the detention center is admitting more young people with severe behavioral, emotional, and mental health issues who have been charged with serious offenses such as murder, rape, and serious physical assaults. 

DBP member Meghan McDowell, an assistant professor of history and social justice at Winston-Salem State University, pointed to decreasing juvenile delinquency rates nationally, across the state, and locally, following the efforts of Durham district attorney Satana Deberry, whose reforms had led to a dramatic drop in juvenile cases before the onset of the pandemic. 

McDowell and other detention center opponents also challenged the county’s decision to build a youth detention center as the most effective means of addressing the 2017 death of a teen who died by suicide while in custody at the downtown adult detention center.

McDowell questioned whether the county had fully explored other alternatives cited in the language of the settlement.

The county commissioners and Nunn said a new and expanded youth detention center is needed in anticipation of an increase in the number of juvenile offenders after the “raise the age” law, which bars most 16- and 17-year-olds from being automatically charged as adults, went into effect in December 2019.

In a statement earlier this month on the county’s website, the commissioners said that the raise-the-age legislation “would inevitably result in needing more beds as the age for youth that could be housed in the adult detention center would be lowered.”

Nunn noted that the new detention center will include a separate nonsecure assessment center to provide resources and services to families in crisis.

“It’s based on families calling us for help,” explained Nunn, who added that the youth home phones have “been ringing off the hook” with families in crisis who are in need of preventive services. “With the new assessment center they can receive an evidence-based assessment and enter into an intervention program. The assessment is not related to the court. It’s not a secure setting at all.”

DBP members are not convinced.

“Incarcerating youth is inherently anti-therapeutic, especially for youth who have endured harm and for those who have caused it,” DBP member Manju Rajendran told the INDY following the town hall. 

County commissioners in their statement pointed to the county’s legal obligations following the 2019 settlement with Graves and her family. The teen’s death was also behind the state’s “Sight and Sound” legislation that goes into effect next month, mandating that young people awaiting trial as adults not be held in any jails for adults.

McDowell during the town hall pointed out that the county frequently uses the phrase “legally obligated” to explain its rationale for building a new youth detention center.

“We believe this is a misrepresentation of their obligations,” said McDowell, who questioned whether the county had “developed some reasonable alternative plan.”

“That is where we, Durham County residents, come in,” the professor added. “To dream up, to name, and to fight for these reasonable alternatives.”  

McDowell said that Durham’s juvenile delinquency rate is “well below the state’s average” and that the average daily population at the youth home has not been above 12.6 since 2016.

But Nunn said McDowell and detention center opponents don’t understand the data behind the detention center’s average daily population.

“It may be 14 today, 12 tomorrow, and five by the weekend,” said Nunn, who added that she often has to spend money to send children out of Durham County because the current facility may not have adequate bed capacity.

“I am totally opposed to such a sick idea,” said “Momma” Ruby Johnny, a West African dance instructor and cultural educator who has spent decades teaching children. “We don’t need a detention center. African societies, which I base my work on, say that producing successful happy, well-rounded children comes from the elders helping them to be that way. And as leaders and teachers, we should not allow our money to be used that way. We need to use our money to educate and empower our children.”

But on the other side of the issue, Howerton said that prior to the town hall, she had met with mothers whose children had been murdered. These meetings took place at the county justice center, where the Durham Homicide Memorial Quilt is on display in the lobby.

“I have not heard you talk about the damage,” Howerton said near the town hall’s end. “I’m a Black mother. I don’t want any child to be in jail. But I also have to understand that when somebody picks up a gun and murders someone else’s child that that child is in pain. And if you want to put them back on the street to murder someone else before they have a chance to be healed, is that what you’re looking to do?” 

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