After a yearlong struggle for an independent community-led investigation into the Durham County Jail, the Durham Jail Investigation Team is disbanding.
This signals the end of one particular battle to free up resources to fight the many others the Durham community – many members of which were activated through the DJIT struggle – is currently engaging. These include, but are not limited to, the abolition of bail, the preservation of in-person visitation, and an independent investigation into the death of Niecey Fennell, the jail’s third murder since 2015.
Even with the exhaustive research into the functioning of the jail, the staunch support of 17 community groups, and a well-attended public forum hosted by the Durham Human Relations Commission, the county commissioners decided it would not be “productive” to pressure Sheriff Mike Andrews into allowing the community to observe how the jail – a public institution – is run.
This speaks to two issues:
1. The Sheriff’s office is un-democratic. Throughout this process, Sheriff Andrews has rarely addressed the possibility of a community investigation, and only then when pressed into it by an official channel. There is virtually no mechanism for the community to hold Sheriff Andrews accountable for any of his decisions. When we tried, as we did in January 2016 when we brought our demands to his courtroom office, he hid in his office and refused to meet us. It is un-democratic for the only form of accountability for a public official to be the ballot box every four years. Sheriff Andrews has never been held accountable for the numberless instances of medical neglect, verbal and physical abuse, price-gouging, and death of Durham residents in the jail. And he won’t be until there exist democratic avenues through which the community can do so.
2. The Durham County Commissioners are unwilling to work for the people. The county commissioners received tours of the jail from the Sheriff’s department – this is not what the people asked for; official law enforcement agencies ‘investigated’ the jail – this is not what the people asked for, either. The people demanded an independent, community-led investigation into the jail, and the commissioners refused to work with the people to achieve that goal despite a well-organized effort on the part of the community. One of the more unfortunate aspects of the results of this campaign is the fact that it got so many involved and passionate about an issue they cared about, and the county commissioners, chaired by Wendy Jacobs, slammed the door in their faces.
It is time to move to other points of struggle surrounding the jail. Because of the opposition of the Sheriff’s Department and the County Commissioners to the will of the people, the jail remains an opaque, heartless, an unaccountable institution – for now.
In this process we looked through a lot of accounts of and documents concerning the Durham Jail. Please check out our Final Report on the Durham Jail to see what we were able to conclude through our research.