Local News

Death in Durham jail prompts protest

Posted January 29, 2021 12:52 p.m. EST
Updated January 29, 2021 6:11 p.m. EST

— Protesters gathered outside the Durham County jail on Friday, 10 days after a woman died in custody, to demand information and change.

Brittany Kittrell, 34, was arrested on Jan. 15 on charges of breaking and entering to terrorize or injure, robbery with a dangerous weapon, common law false imprisonment and felony possession of cocaine. She was being held in the jail under $5,000 bond.

Four days later, Sheriff Clarence Birkhead said, Kittrell was taken to a local hospital for medical treatment and died. The cause of death hasn't been determined, he said.

No details about the circumstances surrounding Kittrell's death have been released, which has angered members of BYP100, a coalition of Durham activists. The group said she is the ninth person under age 60 to die while being held at the jail in the last eight years.

"To hear of another person to have died here and to have no information really felt disgusting," BYP100 organizer Kyla Hartsfield said.

In addition to calling for the release of the autopsy report and other details, the group held a caravan Friday with vehicles circling the downtown Durham block where the jail stands, calling for an end of or reforms to the cash bail system.

"She lost her life just for being in a cage, and we don’t believe that is right, that people should be criminalized for not having enough money to get them out," Hartsfield said. "Money bail as a system essentially criminalizes people for being poor."

"Everyone that died in this facility died because they were lacking money," agreed Andrea Hudson, director of the North Carolina Community Bail Fund, which helps get people out of jail. "Money is the reason why they were being held, and because they didn’t have that money, they died in custody – because you were accused of a crime, not because they were convicted."

Following the protest, the Durham County Sheriff's Office released a letter from the state Department of Health and Human Services, stating that a Jan. 22 inspection of the jail found no deficiencies in its operation. The inspection was prompted by Kittrell's death.

The sheriff's office noted that her death was the first at the jail since August 2018. Of the 11 deaths reported at the jail since 2011, authorities said, four were suicides, another four involved health issues that were the result of long-term drug addiction and the remaining three involved chronic health issues.

"Unfortunately, many of the detainees we care for have untreated chronic health issues due to a lack of health insurance [or] access to medical care or are caught in the cycle of addiction," the sheriff's office said in a statement.

Authorities said $1 million in upgrades have been made to the jail to help prevent suicides, and the jail now has a 24-hour mental health treatment program. They also noted that 86 inmates have been treated for addiction through a program launched in September 2019, and they plan to expand the program this year.

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