The word choice is respectful, but make no mistake: the Durham Human Relations Committee's review of the local justice system—and specifically, the conditions inside the Durham County Detention Facility—is scathing.
The INDY obtained a draft of the review and the HRC's recommended path forward—the commission has been working on the plan since March, two months after twenty-nine-year-old Matthew Lamont McCain was found dead in his jail cell—ahead of a Tuesday-evening vote that was expected to see the eighteen-page document forwarded to the Durham City Council and County Board of Commissioners. Within it, the HRC doesn't mince words.
The county jail, it argues, needs an overhaul.
Using academic literature, media reports, community feedback, and interviews with jail staff (members were not permitted to interview detainees), commissioners outlined changes that, in their view, are needed to right the many wrongs they say are unfolding daily in the facility. Among the most notable recommendations is for the elimination of the cash bail system, which the HRC argues would save Durham nearly $12 million per year.
"Too often the current system works to keep defendants in jail solely because they cannot afford their cash bond," the report reads. "Even just a few days of incarceration or pre-trial detention can have severe consequences, such as job loss and eviction, which can compound the reasons why people may be in jail in the first place."
In addition, many of the jail's inmates who are there because they can't afford to post a bond are people of color. This sort of racial inequality is a central theme throughout the report. The HRC's data, for example, suggests that, of the 9,910 people held in the jail in 2015, 65 percent were there on misdemeanor charges—and 73 percent of them were black.
"The majority are people of color," the document says, "revealing yet again the racial disparities our system is allowing."
The HRC is also seeking more spending on mental health services within the jail, an end to the notion that "incarceration is substituting for appropriate mental health treatments," and the creation of a civilian oversight board composed of people who have been incarcerated and their family members.
"The makeup of such an oversight board must represent key stakeholders in the detention system and those people most impacted by it," the report says. Under the HRC's plan, no law enforcement officials would be given seats on the board.
The review also argues that the jail, which is managed by the Durham County Sheriff's Office, is complicit in the mistreatment of inmates and their families, because the jail contracts with companies that are allegedly gouging inmates for phone calls and items at the canteen. Also, the forthcoming switch to video-only visitation, the HRC argues, is simply a way to profit from the visits. As the 2015 contract between the county and Global Tel*Link states, "Until now there has not been an effective way to generate revenue from inmate visitation. [Video visitation] can generate revenue, for example, by charging extra for additional visits."
The HRC proposes to solve this price-gouging problem by leveraging county commissioners' "authority to approve or terminate contracts to demand more accountability and better services by private contractors." To hammer home their point, commissioners noted that a packet of ramen noodles that cost roughly twenty cents at Food Lion sells for more than eighty cents at the jail's canteen.
The INDY went to press before the HRC met Tuesday evening to both vote on sending the review to the city and county and conduct a question-and-answer session with members of the community. (For an account of what happened there, visit indyweek.com.) HRC members declined to comment for this story, saying they wanted to wait to discuss the report until after that meeting.
Just what will happen as a result of the HRC's vote remains to be seen. But it seems clear that the county is comfortable with the status quo. After all, commissioners voted to move forward with funding for video-only visitation in 2013. And, according to the HRC report, in response to past requests to allow an outside organization to complete a survey within the jail, a high-ranking Sheriff's Office official said there was "no way in hell" that would be permitted. As of press time, a message left with the Durham County Sheriff's Office was not returned.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Jail Break."