What It Means to Believe Prisoners

Ending the racist prison system begins with telling the truth about its injustices.

On January 19, Matthew McCain died in his cell at North Carolina’s Durham County Detention Facility. According to reports from the sheriff’s office, which oversees the jail, twenty-nine-year-old McCain was found unresponsive at 5:30 AM and pronounced dead after jail staff and EMS responders attempted “life-saving measures.”

What was omitted from the report, however, was as important as what was included: McCain’s fellow inmates repeatedly tried to alert staff using the emergency buttons in their cells. Their calls were ignored.

Inmates have long complained of similar abuse at the Durham County Detention Facility (DCDF). In fact, after a previous stint in jail, McCain tried to sue the county, arguing that his diabetes and epilepsy medications were repeatedly withheld. (He couldn’t find a lawyer to take the case.) In addition to medical neglect, inmates say they endure unsanitary living conditions, inadequate nutrition, and inflated commissary costs.

Charges of mistreatment don’t just rest on inmate testimony. Last December two guards were fired for holding an inmate down and repeatedly punching her in the head. And, more germane to McCain’s case, the most recent North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services inspection deemed the DCDF’s medical plan “not in compliance with state rules.” Meanwhile, Correct Care Solutions (the jail’s for-profit medical care provider) is being sued by a family from nearby Forsyth County for refusing to provide an inmate’s medication, leading to another death.

Despite clear evidence of inhumane treatment, complaints from inmates and their families are routinely ignored. Incidents like McCain’s death, or the deaths of Dennis McMurray and Raphael Bennett — two other inmates who passed away under similar circumstances last year — are written off as isolated instances or buried in bureaucratic reports.

But inmate testimony is essential to uncovering and confronting the racist and class-biased structures that define our criminal justice system. It’s part of the way in which inmates have historically resisted abusive practices.

In Durham, the Inside-Outside Alliance (IOA) was formed to “amplify the voices of Durham’s incarcerated population and their loved ones.” It contacts inmates, offers support from outside the DCDF, builds relationships and networks with inmates’ families, and when possible provides aid. The group also organizes to force local authorities to address grievances, all with the aim of ending mass incarceration and the brutality of the prison system.

And with good reason. While police murders of people like Walter Scott, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice are widely (and quite justifiably) discussed, abuse within jails, prisons, and other carceral spaces remains largely hidden from public view.

The architecture of prisons is designed to separate inmates, both from the public and from each other. Last year, IOA published a letter sent from one inmate to another, calling the recipient a hero for fighting back against abusive guards.

The missive was necessary because the inmate who resisted was put in “lock back” — restrictive treatment in which inmates are confined to their cells for upwards of twenty-two hours a day. Such punishments ensure that inmates reporting wrongs and refusing to accept abuse have little to rely on but their own words.

Nonetheless, prisoners have continually stood up despite the considerable forces arrayed against them. In one of the most famous instances of inmate resistance, prisoners at Pelican Bay’s solitary housing unit orchestrated a hunger strike. With grievance processes often labyrinthine and ineffectual, inmates protested using the only means available to them: their bodies.

But without aid from outside, such acts are easily hidden within the prison.

And even when visible — often due to the efforts of organizations like IOA and the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, which supported Pelican Bay’s inmates — their resistance is frequently dismissed. Common responses to inmate complaints include “it’s not a hotel, it’s a jail” (to paraphrase Durham County Board of Commissioners chairman Michael Page) and “maybe they shouldn’t be arrested in the first place” (to paraphrase a comment on IOA’s website from someone claiming to be Sheriff Andrews).

At other times, inmates’ testimony is simply written off as overly biased. In response to McCain’s death, for example, the sheriff’s department called into question prison accounts and declared that the Department of Health and Human Services and the State Bureau of Investigations would investigate the death.

Yet detainee claims have repeatedly been borne out, revealing how police and jailers often cross the bounds of legality, let alone justice. Prisoners in Durham last year were subjected to a seven-month “lock back,” in which all inmates were confined to their cells, regardless of behavior, and at the nadir, only had two hours every other day for exercise, showering, socializing, and other activities. The lock back finally ended last October largely thanks to the IOA, which held protests each Friday for thirty-six weeks in a row.

Those putting people into the DCDF have an even worse track record. In addition to arrest rates showing severe racial disparities, police misconduct ranges from the laughable to the lethal.

One officer shot himself in the leg and blamed it on a motorist, who was ultimately acquitted. Jesus Huerta wasn’t so lucky. In 2013, the Latino teenager died in the back of a squad car from a gunshot wound, his hands handcuffed behind his back. No one was charged, and protests erupted. As a result of these cases, Durham chief of police Jose Lopez was forced to resign in late 2015.

His effective termination was no isolated incident. At the beginning of the decade, two district attorneys were booted for misconduct — a damning indictment of the Durham carceral system, as Radley Balko notes in the Washington Post. “Prosecutors are rarely ever removed from office for misconduct. For it to happen twice, in the same county, within five years is extraordinary.”

One of the prosecutors, Tracey Cline, was at the helm when news broke that hundreds of Durham criminal cases were “tainted by shoddy investigations.”

Tellingly, those investigations were performed by the same State Bureau of Investigations that Sheriff Andrews insists will adequately investigate deaths inside the DCDF.

It’s not hard to see why he favors them: in 2010, the Raleigh News & Observer reported that “analysts across the laboratory push past the accepted bounds of science to deliver results pleasing to prosecutors. They are out of step with the larger scientific community and have fought defense attorneys’ requests for additional information needed to review the SBI’s work.”

In addition to such unscrupulousness, the Durham carceral system fills its jails with individuals who have yet to be convicted of a crime: the vast majority of inmates simply can’t afford bail and are awaiting trial. Some prisoners wait for years for their day in court, victims of a state crime lab that is notoriously backlogged. In the meantime, tainted with the scarlet letter of incarceration, they’re treated as perfidious criminals to be ignored and siloed off from the public.

Even before trial, when inmates are legally considered innocent, their reports on the reality of the carceral system are declared illegitimate, as comments like those from Page and Andrews show.

In response, IOA helped launch a new organization last year called the Durham County Jail Investigation Team (JIT).

JIT aims to create a community-led investigation of the jail, and upon its formation demanded: interviews with one hundred prisoners to administer a survey; a full inspection of medical and dining facilities and living quarters; access to all data related to grievances; monthly revenue summary reports for private companies contracted by the jail; and documented evidence of when all cells are opened and closed.

Perhaps most importantly, the group takes inmates’ complaints seriously. Recognizing that those on the inside are siblings, lovers, children, and parents to those on the outside, they hope to build a structure to air grievances and investigate wrongdoings in a setting that isn’t stacked against inmates.

For its part, the sheriff’s office has denied the JIT’s core demands, opting instead to bring in the National Institute of Corrections to perform an inspection. While JIT was provided some documents as part of a FOIA request — including revenue reports for some contractors and inmate grievances — crucial information like “use of force” records was withheld, as it was in a separate request from a local journalist.

Taken individually, these incidents can seem banal. They may be easy to ignore when compared to extreme examples like Chicago’s Homan Square black site or notorious prisons like Angola. But taken in sum, the functioning of the DCDF and Durham’s larger law enforcement system provides a telling example of the way in which everyday forms of oppression contribute to, and reinforce, a larger antidemocratic, racist, and class-biased system.

IOA, JIT, and similar organizations show us that the beginning of any reformation process, much less any attempt at abolition, must begin with uncovering the specifics of injustice: the practices that prohibit visits with family, the contracts that keep costs high for prisoners, the protocols (or lack thereof) that allow medical conditions to go untreated, the systems that allow physical abuse to be ignored.

That means believing prisoners. We must see inmates’ testimony as the testimony of equal citizens. And we must create the institutions that magnify their voices, removing the shroud of secrecy that helps foster inhumane conditions in jails and prisons. Only then can we begin to build a society apart from the carceral state.