Following months of protests over allegations of inhumane treatment of prisoners at the Durham County Detention Facility—including maggots in mashed potatoes, rodent feces in food warmers, and inmates being denied toilet paper and medications—Sheriff Mike Andrews invited the National Institute of Corrections to tour the jail in late April, interview prisoners and staff members, and recommend improvements.
On Monday, the NIC, an agency within the Federal Bureau of Prisons that seeks to improve corrections facilities, released its report. The sheriff's office promptly blasted out a press release declaring that "detainees reported improvements in food, medical care, and maintenance in recent years."
This is true. Of the fifty detainees interviewed, those who had been incarcerated multiple times said conditions had improved.
"All indicated they had noted improvements from three to ten years ago," the NIC report says. "Along with the inmates, one attorney who was visiting clients at the detention facility shared his experiences. He indicated that he had no issues with the jail [and] was able to see his clients promptly."
The report also found that the jail was in "remarkable" shape for a twenty-year-old facility. And it notes that, while jail officials have little say over who or how many people came under its supervision, the jail's average daily population has declined since 2012, which might help ameliorate overcrowding.
Though the report was fairly positive, it was also superficial. As the report itself points out, "a 2-day overview by one corrections professional is not sufficient to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the entire operation."
The report did identify some problem areas—insufficient staffing due to high turnover, for instance. And detainees complained about the amount of time they spend in their cells. (Last year, Andrews instituted a seven-month "lockback," keeping detainees in their cells for all but two hours a day every other day, which he said was necessary to keep inmates safe.) The NIC report suggests that too much idle time can lead to behavioral outbursts.
"The benefit of providing access to programs, work opportunities, and leisure activities keep inmates productively occupied," the report says, "but also has the potential to address inmate needs. After thanking one inmate for an interview, the inmate responded: 'Thank you for occupying my time.'"
Several of the NIC's recommendations center on the treatment of detainees with mental health issues. The agency recommended that the jail use separate housing units for mentally ill inmates and consider providing additional programs in those units.
"Can we do things better? Are we going work to do things better? Is that why the NIC recommends the best practices?" Andrews told the INDY Monday. "Yes, it is, and that's what we're going to work to do."
But that won't be enough to quiet the jail's critics.
"The recommendation to provide more mental health programming is a good one, but segregating prisoners with mental health problems and providing treatment groups does not address the way that the jail itself causes and exacerbates mental health problems," says Greg Williams, a member of the Inside-Outside Alliance, which has protested conditions in the jail over the past year.
Andrews says mental health is the jail's number one priority. He points out that his office has already proposed constructing a mental health pod in which inmates would receive more focused attention.
But the sheriff doesn't have a timetable; the pod is at least eight months away, maybe a year, delayed while the sheriff's office seeks money from the county to hire additional staff members. In the meantime, Andrews says, inmates with mental illnesses will have access to a single psychiatrist who works there eight to ten hours a week.
Mental health may take priority, but it's not the only issue the jail faces. Warren points out that the NIC report doesn't talk about environmental problems like sanitation and excessive heat or allegations of abuse or neglect by detainees. Matthew McCain, an inmate who died in his cell after, his family claims, he was denied proper medical care, appears nowhere in the report. Nor is there any mention of N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reports that indicated neglect leading up to an inmate suicide in 2013.
Andrews insists that his office isn't ignoring these things.
"When concerns are brought to us, we don't turn a blind eye," Andrews says. "That was the main reason we all got into this profession was to help people, not to harm people."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Stars and Bars"