Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts tagged as “county commissioners”

Officials, activists clash over plans to expand youth detention center

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County commissioners and Youth Home Director Angela Nunn pointed to the 38-year-old building’s outdated facilities and limited bedspace.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.”

Advocates clash

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.”

Commissioners respond

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.”

 

Durham sheriff requests more COVID-19 testing for county jail

Because exposure to the coronavirus remains a risk inside Durham County Detention Center, the sheriff wants funding to test inmates and staff more frequently.

One hospitalized inmate sick with COVID-19 has been on and off ventilators over the past four weeks, Sheriff Clarence Birkhead told county commissioners on Tuesday.

To keep staff, inmates and the wider community safe, Birkhead asked county commissioners for funding to have jail inmates and staff tested for the virus every two weeks.

“We take this very seriously,” Birkhead said during a commissioners meeting.

On April 25, Durham County detention officer Alexander Pettiway Jr. died from COVID-19. After an outbreak in August, testing confirmed 21 cases among 262 inmates and five among  staff.

Testing staff and inmates every two weeks would cost between $60,000 to $110,000 each time, depending on whether the county health department or Duke University handled the testing, Birkhead said. Alternatively, his department could test 20 employees every two weeks he said.

Commissioner Ellen Reckhow asked whether an approach that falls between those two options might be preferable. “One is the Cadillac at 200 and one seems quite low at 20, is there one in between?” she asked.

Birkhead agreed to return to the commissioners with more details about testing options as early as Monday. 

An important group to test are inmates getting released from center custody into the community, the sheriff said. The center releases 73 residents on average a month and they are not tested before departing, he said.

The sheriff also proposed requiring that each new detention center hire test negative for the virus within seven days before beginning work.

“Every employee and every person housed here can be infected with COVID-19,” said Anothony Prignano, chief deputy for detention said.

Beyond testing, department staff continue to take steps to reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading at the facility, Birkhead said.

If a previously confined person leaves the detention center and returns, they are placed in quarantine for 14 days. That includes people in custody who go to the Durham County Courthouse, where multiple cases of coronavirus have been detected in the clerk of court’s, magistrate’s, and district attorney’s offices, the sheriff said.

For the 14-day quarantine, jail residents are housed in a part of the detention center separate from the rest of the population. People admitted to the center stay there too until it’s clear they are not carrying the virus, said department spokeswoman AnnMarie Breen. 

Center staff are sticking with cleaning protocols started in March. Using a disinfectant, staff clean every four hours and whenever residents leave and return to their cells.

Reckhow and board chairwoman Wendy Jacobs questioned why insurance would not cover county employee testing costs. A member of Birkhead’s  staff explained that current workers compensation insurance does not cover preventative COVID-19 tests. 

Commissioners also asked why the hospitalized inmate who was convicted of a felony remains in the Durham detention center. 

Typically such an inmate would have been transferred to a state prison within 20 to 25 days of their conviction, Birkhead said. The state, which is also working to reduce coronavirus exposure among its inmates, is paying the county detention center $40 a day to continue to hold these individuals, as well as covering their medical costs.

9th Street reporter Dryden Quigley can be reached at dryden.quigley@duke.edu

At top: People inside the Durham County Detention Center peer out to watch street protesters march by on Sept. 4. Protesters were demanding more information about why police officer approached youngsters with guns last month. Photo by Henry Haggart