Durham officials clashed with prison abolitionists Thursday night over a $30 million plan to more than double the size of the county’s juvenile detention center.
Durham Beyond Policing, which advocates for diverting all funding for police and prisons into social programs, organized the virtual town hall. Over 120 Durhamites attended, many of them opposed to county plans to replace the 14-bed Durham County Youth Home with a 36-bed facility.
County commissioners and Youth Home Director Angela Nunn pointed to the 38-year-old building’s outdated facilities and limited bedspace. But many community members say that expanding the juvenile justice system would harm Durham’s youth.
This debate comes as communities throughout North Carolina and the United States grapple with a criminal justice system that disproportionately punishes poor people and racial minorities of all ages.
“Our phones are ringing off the hook,” Nunn said of the detention facility. “Our families are in crisis and we need to help.”
Said community member Nicole Cooper, “If [detained youth] didn’t have mental health issues when they were incarcerated, they will when they are released.”
The $30 million question
In a 2015 report to the county, Nunn identified several serious problems with the Youth Home.
She described “a dangerous environment for staff and residents,” plagued by faulty plumbing, fire code violations, bad lighting and a failing door control system. But the “greatest security concern” was the facility’s layout, which prevented staff from separating youth based on gender or security level.
The report also raised doubts about the Youth Home’s ability to house Durham juveniles if the state were to start trying 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. Raise the Age, the law that mandates that courts do this, passed in 2019—resulting in even less bedspace at the detention center.
“The facility is so bad, it’s sad to see anyone in that place, no matter what they have done,” Commissioner Chair Brenda Howerton said at the town hall.
That’s why commissioners agreed to an overhaul of the facility. The new Youth Home, which the city has been planning since 2015, would include an assessment center to determine children’s needs and connect them with programs and services. And the facility would still have enough room to expand into a 60-bed center if it ever needed to.
The expanded detention center would stand on the same plot of land as the current one, which would be demolished once the new one is completed.
But Durham activists argued that the $30-million expansion budget should go to social programs that address the root causes of youth delinquency. In an on-the-spot brainstorming session, community members suggested more than 50 alternative uses for the money.
Ideas included mental health services, counselors, drug rehabilitation programs, universal childcare, universal pre-K and a youth center.
“This is why public input is necessary!” the Durham Beyond Policing admin wrote in the Zoom chat. “Amazing ideas y’all.”
For the first half of the town hall, which started at 7 p.m and ran until about 9:15 p.m., opponents of the new Youth Home raised a variety of concerns.
Organizer Tyler Whittenberg argued that detention centers isolate children and worsen preexisting issues. And Meghan McDowell, a professor of history and social justice at Winston-Salem State University, pointed out that youth incarceration rates have declined over the past ten years. Since 2016, the Youth Home has never averaged more than 12.6 detainees per quarter.
Other community members spoke emotionally about Durham County’s handling of children’s offenses and mental health crises.
One woman’s daughter was violent, lit fires in the house, showed signs of kleptomania and said she heard voices. But for six years, professionals told the mother that the girl had “no obvious mental health challenges.”
Another woman still grieves the death of her 16-year-old daughter, who died in the Durham County jail before Raise the Age passed.
When representatives from the county government took the virtual floor, however, the tone shifted dramatically.
Director Nunn’s voice was sharp with anger as she addressed organizers’ critiques. She noted that although the quarterly averages don’t show it, the Youth Home’s population fluctuates from day to day.
“We may have 14 [youth] today, 12 tomorrow and by the weekend we may empty to five,” she said.
This means the Youth Home “often” runs out of bed space and must send children to one of the state’s 11 other juvenile detention centers. The nearest of these is in Butner, 12 miles from downtown Durham.
In the chat, Durhamites heckled Nunn as she spoke, repeatedly asking why the Youth Home would ever need to expand to 60 beds. Some argued that having additional beds “creates an imperative” to fill them, even though the courts, not the Youth Home, control who gets sent there. And Whittenberg interrupted Nunn four times to urge officials to renovate the existing facility, rather than build a new one.
“I just wanted to intervene for a second,” said organizer Ronda Taylor Bullock, closing out the argument. “Let’s take some deep breaths.”
In the last portion of the town hall, four of the Durham County Commissioners who attended — Brenda Howerton, Wendy Jacobs, Nida Allam and Heidi Carter — responded to community concerns.
Howerton, the first to speak, blasted organizers for dismissing the reality of violent crimes.
“I’m a Black mother,” she said. “I don’t want my child to be in jail. But I also understand that when [a child] picks up a gun and murders someone else’s child, 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?”
Jacobs, Allam and Carter were more conciliatory. All raised the possibility of shutting down the Youth Home if that’s what the public wants, although this would mean sending Durham youth to out-of-county detention centers.
Organizers, for their part, bemoaned a lack of communication prior to the town hall. While the five-member County Commission had discussed the Youth Home proposal at multiple public meetings, many Durhamites said they’d only recently heard about it.
Commissioners agreed to hold another public hearing on the Youth Home soon.
Said Commissioner Allam, “I really appreciate you guys giving us this opportunity as commissioners to be a part of this conversation and listen.”