Durham Detention Center Testing & Data Transparency: Our Letter to Durham Public Health Director Rodney Jenkins
June 30, 2020
Director, Durham County Department of Public Health
Dear Director Jenkins,
We, Durham Congregations, Associations, and Neighborhoods (Durham CAN), are an organization based in over 30 influential institutions throughout our community that share a concern for families and a tradition of faith and democracy. We seek to develop public relationships with elected, appointed, and other leaders in our community, and through those relationships shape public policy for the common good, especially for the voiceless and vulnerable in Durham. We also hold our leaders accountable. While we hope to have a relational meeting with you soon (see below), the current circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic do not permit us to wait before sharing with you our concerns and requests.
When you assumed the role of Director of Durham County Department of Public Health (DCoDPH), you committed to serving all the residents of Durham County. In this role, you are charged with helping the whole community, including those people who cannot speak for themselves. We are writing today specifically about our incarcerated brothers and sisters at the Durham County Detention Facility. We acknowledge and thank you for the Durham County Coronavirus Data Hub, which includes the total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the county, the average age of a COVID-19 person, the demographics, and the total number of deaths. While the Data Hub is revealing, it lacks testing and results specific to the Durham County Detention Facility. The DCoDPH website mentions that it will use every resource at its disposal to help stop the spread of COVID-19. We believe that transparent and up-to-date testing and results specific to the Durham County Detention Facility is critical in combating the spread of COVID-19.
In a letter to Durham CAN dated June 1, 2020, Sheriff Clarence Birkhead stated that approximately 24 residents were tested for COVID-19, and thankfully, none were positive. When asked about making this data public, Sheriff Birkhead indicated that this information was forwarded to you, Director Jenkins. Thus, our first request of you today is:
Will you make current and future COVID-19 testing and results specific to the Durham County Detention Facility publicly available on the Durham County Department of Public Health's website?
As the Health Director, we know you understand the dire consequences of a virus making its way into a closed building with congregate residents like the Detention Facility. During an online conversation that we had with Sheriff Birkhead on June 8, he committed to testing all the residents of the Detention Facility if he had sufficient resources. He told us that he did not have the resources then, and he anticipated that his budget would be reduced in the next county budget. If you have access to tests that could be made available to the residents at the Detention Facility, we would ask that you make these tests immediately available so that all residents can be tested. Even if you do not have access to a significant number of tests currently, Durham county will be receiving federal money from the CARES Act that must be used towards mitigating the effects of COVID-19. Thus, our second request of you today is:
Will you provide tests and/or advocate or arrange to designate a portion of the CARES Act money that Durham county receives to fund COVID-19 testing for all residents of the Durham County Detention Facility?
Finally, as we indicated above, Durham CAN believes that the most productive public relationships we can have with our leaders is borne of a strong relational foundation. Thus, our final request today is:
Will you meet with Durham CAN leaders via online platform in the next month to discuss your work and vision for DCoDPH?
We believe that answering yes to all three of our questions would be consistent with your commitment to protect and serve all of Durham County residents. Considering the aggressive nature of COVID-19, we hope that since June 1, 2020, there has been ample testing in the Durham County Detention Facility. We hope that tests are readily available for our incarcerated brothers and sisters. We acknowledge all the steps you have taken thus far, but we hope that our call for more transparency does not go unanswered as it is your duty to keep our community safe. As coronavirus cases rise in our county and state, our concerns are obviously urgent. We eagerly await a response to this letter. We look forward to speaking with you soon, and we hope you will let us know if there is anything Durham CAN can do to help you in your work.
Durham Congregations, Associations, and Neighborhoods
On Tuesday, June 2nd, Sheriff Birkhead provided the following response and accepted the invitation to attend our next Criminal Justice Action Team meeting on Monday, June 8th:
May 20, 2020
Clarence F. Birkhead
Sheriff, Durham County
Dear Sheriff Birkhead,
As our community continues to grapple with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, we first want to thank you for your April 6 letter detailing the initial measures you took to prevent the spread of the virus in the Durham County Detention Center. After detention officer Alexander Pettiway, Jr.’s death from COVID-19 and several other officers testing positive for the disease, we write with continued concern for the safety of your employees and our incarcerated brothers and sisters. In addition to seeking information, we also want to know how we as a community can assist and support you in making the detention center as safe as possible.
Response from Durham County, Sheriff Clarence F. Birkhead re: COVID-19 & Incarcerated Community Members
On Friday, April 3rd, Durham CAN sent a letter to Durham County Sheriff, Clarence F. Birkhead, to express our concerns and priorities regarding our brothers and sisters in the Durham County Detention Facility; and to invite his thoughts about how we as a community could assist him and his staff in securing the necessary resources to protect the men and women in his custody. Our letter also included a list of questions about the specific measures he was taking at the Detention Center facility to prevent the spread of a virus.
On Monday, April 7th, Sheriff Birkhead provided the following response:
April 27, 2020
District Attorney, Durham County
Dear Ms. Deberry,
We write to follow up on our letter of March 27 and our conversation on April 2. First, thank you for your efforts in reducing our county’s jail population during this pandemic. As of this morning the jail population is 265. That number was nearly 500 when you took office, and it was over 360 five weeks ago. The drastic reduction, achieved through a combination of fewer and lower pretrial bonds and sensible plea agreements, is laudable. We thank you, the defense bar, and the responsible magistrates and judges for such quick and dramatic action in deference to public health.
We hope that you and all those you hold dear are faring well during these times.
A lot has changed since our last Metro Council Meeting at Abundant Hope. And the fact is that many of the communities we organize with are in a constant state of emergency even when there isn't a pandemic. So while this moment forces us to adjust our methods and our tempo, we still remain committed to action.
Leaders from all Durham CAN institutions, as well as those assessing membership, are welcome to our April Metro Council meeting:
Durham CAN Metro Council Meeting
Thursday, April 16, 6:00 pm - 7:30 pm
April 3, 2020
Clarence F. Birkhead Sheriff, Durham County
Dear Sheriff Birkhead,
As our community prepares for the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we at Durham CAN write to share our concerns and priorities regarding our brothers and sisters in the Durham County Detention Facility. In addition to communicating our agenda, we write in a spirit of cooperation, with an invitation to please let us know how we as a community can assist you and your staff in securing the necessary resources to protect the men and women in your custody.
March 27, 2020
District Attorney, Durham County
Dear Ms. Deberry,
As our community prepares for the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we at Durham CAN want to add our voice to the growing cry for help for one of our most vulnerable populations: our incarcerated brothers and sisters. As closed environments, jails and prisons present the highest risk of illness from a virus. Outbreaks in our detention and correctional facilities are inevitable. In explaining his stay-at-home order, Mayor Schewel declared that the window for keeping ourselves safe is now. Similarly, the window for releasing our community members from prisons to spare them, and other incarcerated people and the staff that secure them, from this dangerous disease is now.
Over the past week, I've spent some time thinking about the implications of this moment for a practice of organizing that is deeply relational -- eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul.
I shared some thoughts this morning with our Clergy Caucus members and thought I'd share with ya'll: