Advocates, Families Demand Public Discussion of Detention Practices in Durham, NC

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Analysis Human Rights

Advocates, Families Demand Public Discussion of Detention Practices in Durham, NC

Tina Vasquez

"My son never had a chance here.”

At a Durham Board of County Commissioners budget public hearing Monday evening, Maria was one of 46 people who spoke during public comments. Many were there to address the proposed budget increase to the county jail, the implementation of an unpopular video visitation program, and cuts to public schools.

Like many members of Durham’s low-income communities of color, what is happening inside the Durham County Detention Facility is having a devastating impact on Maria, whose last name is being withheld for privacy reasons.

Visibly nervous, Maria laid out sparse details about her son and his case. He was arrested by the sheriff’s office on March 16, and held in jail at Durham County Detention Facility. The day of his release, April 5, after his charges were dismissed and his case dropped, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) immediately detained him. This is because the Durham County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, honored an ICE detainer request.

Maria received loud applause at the hearing when she said she wanted Durham sheriff Mike Andrews to stop collaborating with ICE.

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“My son would be free right now [if not for the collaboration],” Maria told Rewire in a phone interview on Tuesday morning. “My son was in jail for a month, because I was told that even if I paid his $1,000 bond to get out of the jail, immigration would take him anyways, because he had a detainer on him. I had to leave him there … and when I finally thought he was going to be free, he was taken by ICE.”


As Rewire reported, a detainer request is a key “crimmigration tool that ICE uses to detain and deport undocumented people who come into contact with law enforcement agencies.

Maria’s 18-year-old son, who came to the United States as an unaccompanied minor, has been at Stewart Detention Center ever since his release from the county jail in April. Vice called the notoriously remote detention center in Lumpkin, Georgia, “the black hole of America’s immigration system.”

In phone calls home, Maria’s son reports that he is depressed and unable to eat the “rotten food” being served at Stewart, a common assertion shared with Rewire from those who have been funneled through the center. On Thursday, Maria learned her son did not receive a bond at his hearing, so he will likely be deported to El Salvador, where he says his life has been threatened by a local gang because of his refusal to join.

Fewer than 2 percent of undocumented immigrants detained at Stewart win their cases.

And until it was recently surpassed by Mexico, El Salvador was the murder capital of the world, “with a per capita homicide rate more than 15 times that of the United States,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Children as young as age 9 are recruited for gang membership, and Maria’s son was one of these children.

In the months since Maria’s family’s ordeal began, she has connected with others in Durham who have shared the ways their families have been affected by the city’s policies, including the continued use of checkpoints.

In March, as part of what was supposed to be a “public dialogue with public officials,” Durham Police Department Chief of Police Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis told a predominantly Latino crowd that “checkpoints in the city … have been directed to cease and desist,” but it appears the agency hasn’t yet stopped conducting checkpoints. The agency still conducts“multi-jurisdictional highway safety campaigns,” including “Booze It & Lose It” and “Click It or Ticket.”

Tamara Gibbs, public information officer for the sheriff’s office, an agency that has made no indication it will stop conducting checkpoints, told Rewire in a June email that the sheriff’s office conducted checkpoints as recently as May, with one occurring the afternoon of May 29 and two on May 30.

One of the May checkpoints occurred at the intersection of Old Oxford Road and Stanley Road, not far from a February checkpoint near the School for Creative Studies that caused a major uproar in Durham. One undocumented Durham resident, who asked that we not use their name for security reasons, told Rewire that when they encountered the May 30 checkpoint, they became so afraid of being detained and deported that they pulled over and called a family member to come get them.

“When I am at the court for my son, people have talked to me about going through things like my family has gone through. They stop them [at checkpoints] to see if they’ve been drinking, but if they don’t have papers—if they don’t have a driver’s license—they can be taken [by immigration officials],” Maria told Rewire.

Secure Communities “By Any Other Name”

At March’s public dialogue with city officials held at at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Major Paul Martin of the Durham County Sheriff’s Department handed out a flyer called “A Guide For Our Immigrant Neighbors.” The flyer claimed the sheriff’s office does not actively search for undocumented people; does not have “a partnership, collaboration, or agreement with ICE”; does not participate in the 287(g) program; and does not participate in Secure Communities.

As Rewire reported, Secure Communities is a federal program designed to identify immigrants in U.S. jails who are deportable under immigration law. It requires local law enforcement agencies to submit to a federal database biometric information—including fingerprints—from anyone they have arrested. ICE then submits detainer requests that local law enforcement agencies can choose whether or not to honor.

Secure Communities was active from 2008 to 2014, when the Obama administration replaced it with the Priority Enforcement Program, which is essentially the same program. As of September 30, 2011, Secure Communities had led to 142,000 deportations. According to TRAC Immigration, which tracks immigration detainer requests by state, Durham received 1,167 detainer requests from 2010 to late 2015. In 484 of those instances, ICE assumed custody of an undocumented person who had been arrested by local law enforcement.

When asked by faith leaders in the community in front of a crowd of 1,300 if his agency participates in Secure Communities, Martin said no.

Martin’s assertion is in direct opposition to what Gibbs has repeatedly told Rewire in email exchanges, which is that “the Sheriff’s Office participates in Secure Communities. The agency uses that term even though there may be other immigration programs that go by another name.”

Gibbs previously outlined how the agency participates: “A deputy is only required to determine the person’s immigration status only if a person is arrested on a felony or an impaired driving offense (boating included.) Typically, the Sheriff’s Office is only made aware of a person’s status if they are processed at the detention facility. During the booking process, fingerprints are checked to determine whether a person has other outstanding criminal charges. The Sheriff’s Office does not have the ability to opt in or to opt out of the state’s fingerprint database. The state coordinates the database.”

On April 17 when asked again by Rewire to clarify the sheriff’s office’s participation in Secure Communities, including whether or not the sheriff’s office currently participates in Secure Communities or other forms of immigration enforcement, including honoring ICE detainer requests, Gibbs said “previous exchanges will answer the same questions you’ve submitted to the Sheriff’s Office today and in the past.”

In the email, Gibbs also attached a screenshot of a previous email to Rewire in which she asserted the agency’s legal adviser reviewed its processes and “determined that the agency has never actively participated in Secure Communities or the Priority Enforcement program.”

Gibbs said the “agency regrets and has acknowledged a miscommunication about its policies”—all while still referring Rewire to previous exchanges in which the public information officer outlined the specific ways in which the sheriff’s office collaborates with ICE.

“Again, the Sheriff’s Office maintains that it does not actively search for or arrest undocumented residents, and has never done so under Sheriff Andrews’ Administration,” Gibbs told Rewire in the email. “As President Trump issues new executive orders, the Sheriff’s Office will continue to review the impact of those directives on all of its residents—undocumented and documented—because the Sheriff’s Office serves the entire community, residents from every corner of Durham County.”

This conflicting information is among the reasons why two Durham organizations are requesting that the Durham Board of County Commissioners exercise its authority under North Carolina G.S. 153A-104 “and call Sheriff Andrews to report to the Board and answer questions while under oath.”

The immigrant rights organization Alerta Migratoria and the Inside-Outside Alliance, which supports people imprisoned in the Durham jail, are also asking the board to participate “in an open and public discussion about the practices of the Durham County Sheriff’s Office at a future regular session meeting.”

Gibbs said she is unaware if the Board of Commissioners has “legal authority to require the sheriff to participate in the inquiry.” Back in April, when Alerta Migratoria first issued its letter asking the county commissioners to have the sheriff answer questions under oath, Wendy Jacobs, chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, told Rewire in a phone interview that while she didn’t think the sheriff’s office was intentionally being unclear; it was apparent “direction and clarification has been asked for and not received,” which Jacobs said is primarily to blame for “all of the confusion.”

But when pressed on whether that meant Jacobs would use her authority to demand the sheriff answer questions under oath, the chair sidestepped the question, saying that people “needed to talk to each other.”

“That’s been really lacking and for me, that’s the first step,” Jacobs said. “The sheriff has been proactive and has reached out to me for names and contact information for people. My understanding is that he will reach out directly and set up meetings.”

Jacobs also expressed that she was willing to help facilitate one-on-one meetings with the sheriff and various community members. But to Stephanie Gans, that’s part of the problem.

“Insisting on these one-on-one meetings is definitely a new thing that is really being pushed by Wendy Jacobs. I kind of find it hilarious, because I don’t know what a closed-door, one-on-one meeting with members of our organization or other organizations would do if Wendy Jacobs, who is chair of one of the most powerful committees in Durham, has been meeting with the sheriff and she still can’t figure out what’s going on either. I just think they want a photo opp,” Gans said.

Gans is a member of the Inside-Outside Alliance, whose members regularly show up at county commissioner board hearings to uplift the voices of those previously and currently imprisoned in the Durham jail. The organization also maintains correspondence with those in the jail and has a website featuring the writings of people currently imprisoned at the facility, which has recently seen a series of in-custody deaths, including the March suicide of a 17-year-old inmate. These writings are often shared with county commissioners during public hearings, including one that took place in March and resulted in several members of the organization being arrested.

A “Long-Standing, Systemic Problem” Within Durham

Just as Alerta Migratoria can’t seem to get clear responses regarding the sheriff’s office’s participation in immigration enforcement, the Inside-Outside Alliance has struggled to get to the bottom of why the Durham County Detention Facility is going to implement video visitation.

At Monday’s budget hearing, several of its members read letters in which some people currently imprisoned in the Durham jail explained that in-person visits are the only time they “feel human.”

In March, a local publication reported that the sheriff’s office was launching its video visitation program this summer, forcing those in prison to video conference with their visitors via a monitor in the jail’s lobby. Under the current system, the News & Observer reported, visitors talk with inmates through a glass window for 20 minutes.

A spokesperson with the sheriff’s office told the publication that Sheriff Andrews “plans to use a hybrid approach that will include both video and in-person visitation while he evaluates the program.” But in surrounding Wake and Mecklenburg Counties, “hybrid” visitation programs have since ended; now, neither county offers in-person visitation.

Earlier this month, an inmate who goes by the name KFO addressed a letter to Jacobs directly. In that letter, posted online by the Inside-Outside Alliance, the author wrote:

I believe most detainees’ families live in or near Durham.  If these family members are relegated to coming to the jail, only to sit before a monitor downstairs to see and communicate with us through another monitor upstairs, that would be a travesty of justice, an unnecessary invasion of privacy on our visits, and a waste of tax dollars.

Instinct and history tells me that video visitation is not going to be an alternative form of visitation. Rather, due time, face-to-face visits will be phased out to give the Sheriff a captive audience to charge exorbitant fees for visits.  Otherwise, why try to fix what’s not broken?

Gans told Rewire that no one her organization has spoken to wants video visitation; they want to see their loved ones in person, even if it’s through glass.

“You have to understand that the shift to video visitation wasn’t on public agendas. The sheriff received a grant from the Department of Defense to implement video visitation. This all happened under the radar. There was no public accountability, no public comments, and no transparency,” the activist said. “Time and time again, their press people send confusing emails, or they don’t respond to us. They don’t have anything in writing to reflect policy changes; they just make up policies as they’re confronted with questions.”

Gibbs told Rewire in an email Thursday that the Sheriff’s office initially sought grant funding for video visitation and notified Durham County leaders about its plan in June 2013. The program launching this summer is “entirely funded by a Department of Justice grant.” The public information officer also clarified that elected sheriffs in the state of North Carolina are not required to hold public hearings regarding agency policies, projects, or programs and that the “Board of County Commissioners is responsible for its meeting agenda.”

In a phone call Thursday afternoon, Jacobs told Rewire that a 30-minute public comments section takes place once a month during work sessions and that members of the community can comment on any issue. People have commented on the issue of video visitation, she said.

“The issue of video visitation has never come before us for approval because the sheriff received a grant from the DOJ in 2013 that is the source of funding for the video visitation, so the Durham Board of County Commissioners has not provided funding for this. We have made it very clear that our board does not support the implementation of video as a replacement to in-person visitation. We do not support any reduction in in-person visitation,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs also clarified that in 2013 when the sheriff’s department received the grant, the county commissioners did conduct a budget amendment process, approving the grant money for inclusion in the sheriff’s office’s budget.

“It was a consent agenda item including the money into the budget, but none of us had any intention during the process of jeopardizing in-person visitation,” Jacobs said.

Another contentious issue at the hearing was the county commissioners pending approval of a plan to decrease Durham public schools’ funding while increasing the jail’s budget.

“We go to the county commissioners and other public [meetings] because it is literally the only way we can hold anyone accountable. The sheriff isn’t there, but it’s the only way we can make our voices heard in Durham. If the commissioners don’t allow us to publicly comment, we force them to hear our comments. It’s all we can do for accountability,” Gans said.

Back in January, Durham’s Human Relations Commission released a draft 18-page document featuring a series of recommendations for the Durham County Detention Facility. Neither the city council nor the county commissioners have announced a hearing where members of the public can comment on the findings.

Alerta Migratoria member Daniela Hernandez Blanco said that public meetings allowing members of the Durham community to hold Sheriff Andrews accountable are the only way forward.

“We’re past the point where a private meeting will be helpful,” Blanco said. “As elected, public officials, they should be held accountable. It’s part of their job as public servants and the county commissioners need to use the power it does have to help clear the air because this is obviously a long-standing, systemic problem.”

The organizer told Rewire that when members of her organization or the Inside-Outside Alliance attempt to make their voices heard at public meetings and hearings, they’re “demonized” by county officials, who “dismiss” their concerns and paint them as having “sinister intentions.”

“These are people who lied to a church full of vulnerable people, who lied and told them they were safe when they’re not,” Blanco said, referring to the March “public dialogue” that took place at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. “When our members yelled out that the sheriff’s office was lying, when we pointed out that the church didn’t offer anyone sanctuary if they were targeted, they tried to make us look like the bad guys. It’s a slap in the face to the immigrant community in Durham.”

As previously mentioned, the Inside-Outside Alliance has experienced its own hostility. 

“It’s respectability politics. The reality is that people should be angry; they’re entitled to anger. To imply that this should all be handled quietly, behind closed doors, is disrespectful to everything people in our communities are subjected to,” Blanco said.

As far as Maria is concerned, the damage is already done. The mother of the 18-year-old detained in Stewart Detention Center told Rewire she wasn’t even aware of the March meeting, but what she does know, she said, is that undocumented immigrants “who go to the Durham jail get deported.”

This isn’t always the case. According to TRAC, since 2010, there have been hundreds of instances in which the Durham Sheriff’s Office did not honor an ICE detainer request. To Maria and other members of Durham’s undocumented community, that hardly matters.

Maria said she “doesn’t have the words” to articulate how all of this has made her feel, how it has affected her family, and how afraid she is for her son.

“What I can say is that the authorities, we don’t trust them anymore,” Maria said. “We don’t trust their word. They do what they want, and for my son, nothing has been fair. He was arrested and within 24 hours he had an ICE detainer. My son never had a chance here.”