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Questions arise about Durham County Jail following inmate deaths

<p>The Jan. 19 death of Durham County Jail inmate Matthew McCain is currently being investigated.</p>

The Jan. 19 death of Durham County Jail inmate Matthew McCain is currently being investigated.

With national attention focused on the treatment of prisoners by police, two recent deaths of inmates in Durham County Jail have raised concerns locally.

Matthew McCain, 29, died Jan. 19. He was an inmate at Durham County Jail awaiting trial. Another inmate, Dennis McMurray, 52, died last January in the same jail under similar circumstances.

“My uncle called and told me my dad had passed away in jail,” said Shakiyla Young, McMurray’s daughter. “That same night I went to the Durham County Jail to ask them what happened, and they kept trying to say they didn’t know what happened, they found him collapsed on the floor and by the time they found him it was too late.”

McCain had been incarcerated since August. According to the official report of inmate death, McCain was alive at 5:01 a.m. Jan. 19. He was found in distress at 5:30 a.m., and pronounced dead at 6:08 a.m. The Sheriff’s Office and Durham County Department of Public Health are both investigating his death.

McMurray died Jan. 10, 2015, after being booked into jail the day before, from an accidental drug overdose, according to an autopsy report. Another inmate, Raphael Bennett, died Aug. 31, 2015, and an investigation is ongoing, according to the Office of the Sheriff.

Young said she visited the Office of the Sheriff multiple times in the weeks following the death of her father and learned more information each time. McMurray’s cause of death was determined to be a drug overdose, Tamara Gibbs, senior public information officer for the Office of the Sheriff, wrote in an email. She noted it was believed to have been caused by drugs ingested before narcotics detectives entered a residence and arrested him.

“I talked to the Sheriff again, and he told me that when my dad first got there, he told him he was having trouble breathing, so they took him back to the medical part of the jail and they gave him some medicine and sent him back to his cell,” Young said. “And I guess after that is when he started calling ‘I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!’ but nobody came to see what was wrong with him.”

Young said she believed McMurray’s death may have been a result of negligence on the part of the jail.

“I heard a couple of things from officers that knew my mom. They were telling my mom that the inmates told them that he was calling out, screaming out for help, that he couldn’t breathe, like everybody in the jail could hear him,” Young said. “And nobody came to see what was wrong or anything.”

Gibbs wrote that questions related to McMurray’s medical care should be directed to Correct Care Solutions, a contracted international company providing inmate medical care. Correct Care Solutions refused to comment due to the Durham County Health Department’s active inquiry, spokesman Jim Cheney wrote in an email Wednesday.

Detention Director Lt. Col. Natalie Perkins did not responded to a request for comment in time of publication.

Treatment raises concern among activists

Activists in Durham have rallied in response to wide-ranging concerns about inmate treatment in county jail.

The Inside-Outside Alliance—which supports those inside, or formerly inside, Durham County Jail—stages regular protests at the facility and maintains correspondence with inmates. It also works with the friends and families of those incarcerated.

The initiative has grown as an effort to document what Duke Divinity student Gregory Williams calls the jail’s “human rights abuses.” Williams is a member of the Durham County Jail Investigation Team, a 20- to 25-person group formed last summer as a mix of family members, former inmates, public health researchers, accountants and scholars advocating for an independent investigation into conditions at the jail.

“There are all of these claims that are coming out and the sheriff is saying everything’s fine, and yet under his watch, twelve people have attempted suicide, people are being denied medical care, all of this other stuff is happening,” Williams said.

According to a document provided by Gibbs earlier this week, however, the Durham County Detention Facility has been “overly inclusive” in its classification of suicide attempts, which resulted in the12 attempts recorded in 2015, and 15 in 2014, a significant increase from the previous two years. “Mental health experts on staff at the facility have an alternate definition,” the document states. By this definition, only three suicide attempts were made in 2015 and two in 2014.

The team seeks to archive inmate letters, conduct a survey on prison conditions and inspect the jail facilities records of private companies that provide services to the jail—including Correct Care Solutions. These demands were first made Dec. 14 with a request for response by Jan. 11, according to Williams. The group is now working on a “strong public campaign,” Williams said.

Since the group formed in Summer 2015, it has advocated against the “lock-back”—a policy implemented in March limiting the time inmates spend outside of the cell to two hours per day. The group also is concerned with the jail accepting Mexican consular IDs from visitors, access to writing materials and price-gouging at medical center and commissary, Williams added.

“The slogan that developed out of that movement was, ‘We believe prisoners,’” he said.

Increasingly strict policies

In the past year, Durham County Jail has faced criticism for what those on the jail investigation team view as overly restrictive policies, particularly regarding the inmate “lock-back.”

Beginning in March, inmates were allowed outside of the cell for two hours per day—a reduction from the prior 10 hours per day. The Office of the Sheriff attributed this change to “illegal, assaultive behavior among detainees, some of whom had known gang affiliations” in its report released to press.

The Raleigh News and Observer contrasted this change with 16 hours per day outside the cell allowed for inmates in jail in Chatham County, 19 hours in Orange County and 13 hours jail in Wake County. Chatham and Orange county jails have fewer inmates than the Durham County Jail, with a little more than 100 inmates, but Wake County has more, with a capacity of 1,580 inmates. Currently, there are more than 400 inmates in Durham County Jail. Prisoners told Time Warner Cable News in April 2015 that release times—two hours, twice a day—were random and took place “at all hours.” In August, Durham County announced an increase of time outside cells to four hours per day.

The North Carolina rules on jails and local confinement facilities states that “each inmate shall be provided opportunities for physical exercise at least three days weekly for a period of one hour each of the days.”

The National Institute of Corrections is slated to inspect the jail early this year at the request of Sheriff Michael Andrews. The Durham County Department of Public Health announced this Monday that they will conduct an independent investigation of McCain’s death, a “standard practice” according to spokesman Erik Nickens.

According to The News and Observer, a report by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services in October found that the medical plan at Durham County Jail was “not in compliance” with state rules, and an earlier report in April found that some supervision rounds were being conducted 90 minutes apart, instead of the required twice per hour.

The current ratio of detention officer supervision to detainees is one to 64, according to the Office of the Sheriff statement.

An event hosted Saturday by the Inside-Outside Alliance to protest the deaths of both McCain and McMurray. Approximately 100 protesters marched to Durham County Jail chanting “black lives matter, blue lives murder,” according to the Durham Herald-Sun. Both McCain’s family and Young spoke at the protest.

“This is an issue that affects the entire community,” Williams said. “It’s an issue of the common good, and all of us need to be involved in ending human rights abuses in the Durham County Jail.”

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