Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
Durham County Detention Facility
The mother of a teenager who died at the Durham County Detention Facility last year was among those who came to lobby county commissioners for reforms at the jail Monday night.
Forty-one people lined up at the podium to speak during a public hearing on the proposed county budget
, calling for changes to jail services and jail funding, more dollars for public schools and financial help for eviction diversion and homeless services.
Julia Graves, the mother of Niecey Fennell, a seventeen-year-old found hanged in her cell last March, didn’t speak, but a lawyer representing her — Ian Mance, with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice — did. (Mance said he is representing the family “in all matters related to Niecey’s death” but declined to comment further. Graves referred questions to Mance.)
In his remarks
, Mance said the county has failed to address safety risks and inadequate mental health care at the jail. Twelve people have died in the facility since 2000, including seven people since 2013.
"My client did not learn until after her child had passed away in March that she had been placed on suicide watch the previous November," he said. "No one from the jail notified her or involved her in devising an appropriate response. This sort of thing does not happen in a facility that is properly attuned and sensitive to the complex mental and medical needs with which many people in the facility are struggling."
The Sheriff’s Office has made modifications
to the jail to reduce the risk of suicide, including to cell windows and air vents. The jail has also opened a mental health pod for male detainees, and the budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year recommends funding for thirteen positions to staff a yet-to-be-built female pod.
State officials who investigated the in-custody death found
that detention officers had not checked on Fennell as often as they should have and did not report information from another inmate that she had spoken about harming herself.
What’s more, Mance said, the jail has failed to separate people in custody under the age of eighteen from the adult population in accordance with
the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Mance added that Durham County’s juvenile detention facility doesn’t have the capacity for the sixteen and seventeen-year-olds who will no longer be treated as adults by the criminal justice system when North Carolina officially raises the age
of juvenile jurisdiction late next year.
Sitting in the audience, Graves wiped tears from her eyes as speakers invoked her daughter’s name and described conditions at the jail.
Witnessa Taylor, a member of the Durham Youth Commission, told the board she is the same age Fennell was when she died and attends Jordan High School, which Fennell attended.
"As a kid myself I cannot imagine how terrifying it is to be held in a detention facility without being able to see my family before I was even convicted of a crime," Taylor said. " ... No child should be denied access to their parents. No child should denied proper medical and mental health care. No child should have to attend a friend's funeral. Durham County failed to protect Niecey from harm while she was awaiting trial."
Another group of speakers called on the county to stop using the money jail detainees spend on commissary items and phone calls to fund services at the jail, like GED classes. According to a memo
from the Sheriff’s Office, items or services funded by these dollars “must directly benefit the detainee.” Speakers on Monday took issue with people in the jail, many of whom cannot afford bail
to get out, contributing this revenue to its operations.
“My concern is not what this money is going to but where this money is coming from,” said Delvin Davis, who is a research analyst at the Center for Responsible Lending.
Andrea “Muffin” Hudson recalled paying $12 for a thermal clothing to stay warm during her time at the Durham jail. The jail not only holds “ransom” people who can’t afford bail, she said, but is “charging them to be able to eat and be able to clothe themselves.”
“If we can’t pay to get out of jail how can we pay for our own care?” she said.
Members of the Durham Human Relations Commission and homeless services providers asked the county to fund additional emergency rental assistance for people facing eviction.
Kevin McNamee, family services coordinator at Families Moving Forward, said he often works with families who have experienced an eviction.
"Many families in Durham are having to make really, really hard choices," he said. "When you have to decide between paying back-owed child care fees to keep your son in daycare or fixing the car you rely on to get to work every day or paying your rent on time and you can't do all three, you might take the risk to go late on your rent. But when your housing expenses are so far above the recommended thirty percent of your income as they so often are, once a family gets behind it can be incredibly hard to catch back up."
An Eviction Diversion Program
operated by Legal Aid of North Carolina, the Department of Social Services and the Duke Civil Justice Clinic have asked both city and county officials for financial support. In a budget meeting, City Council members agreed to budget $200,000 for two lawyers and a paralegal for the program.
So far, more rental assistance money is not included in the county's proposed budget.