This is one of the posters that accuses County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs of “professional negligence,” contending the Durham County jail has cut visits leading up to the implementation of video visitation and is now charging for video visits. Submitted photo
This is one of the posters that accuses County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs of “professional negligence,” contending the Durham County jail has cut visits leading up to the implementation of video visitation and is now charging for video visits. Submitted photo

Durham County

Durham County commissioner Wendy Jacobs ‘mystified’ by accusations in ‘Wanted’ poster

By Virginia Bridges

vbridges@newsobserver.com

May 24, 2017 02:37 PM

Durham

On a utility shed near the corner of West Club Boulevard and North Duke Street is a tattered wanted poster for Durham County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs.

The posters, which can also be found near the Durham Performing Arts Center and Durham Bulls Athletic Park, say Jacobs is wanted for “professional negligence,” contending the Durham County jail has cut visits leading up to the implementation of video visitation and is now charging for video visits.

Jacobs, the chairwoman of the Board of Commissioners, is mystified, she said.

“I don’t operate the jail,” she said. “And, frankly, the information is not true.”

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The Durham County Sheriff’s Office has been taking incremental steps to implement video visitation since 2014. It isn’t in place yet, and no one is being charged for it. Inmate visitation did drop by half from 2015 to 2016, but a direct connection to the implementation hasn’t been established, Sheriff’s Office officials said.

The posters are the latest demonstration by the Inside-Outside Alliance.

City Attorney Patrick Baker said he is exploring whether the posters are in violation of city codes.

The Inside-Outside Alliance has been protesting jail conditions relating to food, health care and other concerns for more than two years.

In recent months, the protests have escalated to blocking an area where inmates are brought to the jail and disrupting the County Commissioners’ meeting in March, which resulted in five people being arrested. The focus of the latest protests are objections to the Sheriff’s Office implementing video visitation at the jail, saying they are concerned in-person visits would be eliminated.

Sheriff Mike Andrews has said in-person visitation will continue as long as he is sheriff.

Greg Williams, a member of the group, confirmed that the Inside-Outside Alliance put the posters up, but wouldn’t say specifically who put them up. Williams said about 100 posters have been put up around the city.

The posters target Jacobs because she won’t put the Durham Human Relations Commission report or video visitation on the Commissioners’ agenda to allow a public discussion, Williams said.

“This is only the beginning. We are determined to pressure county commissioners to take responsibility for the jail,” Williams said. “We are going to keep doing these creative nonviolent direct actions, and they are going to escalate until Commissioner Jacobs grants a fair hearing in an open session.”

In January, the Human Relations Commission, a city advisory commission, approved a report with 10 recommendations, including not implementing video visitation.

The commission investigated jail concerns raised by community members, including the Inside-Outside Alliance.

The recommended changes include creating a civilian review board, allowing a community-based research team to survey jail inmates and staff, and eliminating a cash bail system that keeps some people in jail even though they have not been convicted of a crime.

Next steps includeed presenting the recommendations to the City Council, which has no oversight over the jail, and the County Commissioners. Both bodies have declined such requests, said Phil Seib, chairman of the Human Relations Commission until he was succeeded May 2 by Diane Standaert, Durham NAACP’s legal redress chair.

Attempts to reach Standaert for comment were not successful.

In general, County Commissioners have no direct control of the Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, beyond approving the flow of county money to the agency.

Two of the 10 recommendations — increase mental heath services and expand anti-recidivism and other programs in the jail — directly relate to county government services, Jacobs said.

Commissioners agreed to forward the information to related county staff, she said. In addition, Sheriff Andrews sent a letter asking commissioners to refer all jail-related matters to him, Jacobs said.

Five people were arrested March 13, 2017, after a group of advocates for jail inmates interrupted the Durham County commissioners meeting. The four men and one woman were charged with disorderly conduct, disrupting a meeting and resisting arrest,

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Jacobs and other commissioners have said they do not support the jail moving to only video visitation.

The jail can house up to 736 inmates. As of Wednesday morning it housed 464 inmates.

It was initially planned to have the kiosk video visitation system up and running by spring or summer, but Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Tamara Gibbs wrote in an email this week that the implementation will probably take longer. The agency will not charge for the service, officials have said.

The Sheriff’s Office may also implement a service in which inmates can communicate with loved ones via a computer or mobile device, which is typically associated with fees at other facilities. No decisions have been made on when or how the jail would implement it, Andrews has said.

The move to video visitation would ultimately increase opportunities for inmates to communicate with loved ones, as well as improve security and reduce staff time spent escorting inmates, Andrews has said.

The Inside-Outside Alliance has cited a Prison Policy Initiative study that found 74 percent of county jails banned in-person visits when they implemented video visitation. Wake County only uses video visitation.

Williams said the group doesn’t trust Andrews, and he won’t be sheriff forever.

From 2015 to 2016 the number of personal inmate visitors dropped from 29,770 to 15,201. Detention staff haven’t explored why this occurred, Gibbs wrote in an email. It may have something to do with forgotten passwords, Gibbs wrote.

“They do have detention officers in the lobby who are available to help people schedule visits at the kiosk,” Gibbs wrote.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges