Clara Renfro drove eleven hours to Surry County on May 25 and she and other family members are already planning their next visit. They aren’t interested in seeing the sights of Mayberry or hiking Pilot Mountain State Park, in fact, their visit couldn’t be further from a pleasure.
They plan to demonstrate again outside the Surry County Detention Center over overcrowded conditions, food safety and sanitation. At the end of May, they took to Main Street in Dobson with handwritten signs calling for better food and medical care for every inmate inside the prison.
Inside is someone they love, someone currently in the custody of Sheriff Steve Hiatt and Surry County Jail staff. Marquis Hatcher is awaiting court appearances on multiple counts, he is presumed innocent until proven guilty. During the family’s protest, his mother Christina Flippen was able to have a phone conversation with him on speakerphone about the real-time conditions.
Renfro, Flippen and their friends were in Dobson in May for a court appearance that never happened. Renfro is Hatcher’s grandmother and said they came all the way in part to meet her new lawyer Brandon York and couldn’t. A call to York for comment was not returned.
Renfro said outside Dobson Courthouse in May: ‘I have a serious illness. I don’t know how long I will stay here. So when her grandson didn’t show up, they asked if they could see him and after several refusals they were told that due to COVID-19 they couldn’t. “Let’s stop using COVID as an excuse for everything,” Renfro said in frustration as protesters waved signs at passing cars.
Interviews with former inmates show some similarity in the types of complaints, the most common being overcrowding. The jail is not supposed to hold as many inmates as it does, which is a problem the county and the sheriff are well aware of.
Capt. Scott Hudson reported Friday that the strength inside the prison was 189; six inmates were being held outside the county. The current capacity of the detention center is 125 – the new facility which will open next year is designed to hold up to 360 inmates.
The solution to many problems at the prison, Commissioner Mark Marion said last month, was the construction of a new detention center. Many of the complaints about overcrowding and the physical condition of the building will be addressed by the very virtue of opening the doors to the new facility.
In addition, it will improve the ability to hire and retain detention, as commissioners were told by detention center staff during the budget planning process.
Former inmate Billie Campbell said of the high number of people inside the prison: “You’re lucky you even have a cell. Last May when I was there I remember 16-18 girls in a block. There are only 8 per block. She told the story of sleeping on a mat in the visitation room in her own trash during rehab.
Commenting on the men’s facility, John Gross added: “It was very overcrowded; they would have 11 to 12 people in a cell of 8 men.
Complaints about the facilities were made during interviews with former inmates and current inmates. Mold and mildew have been reported in showers and on surfaces around the prison. Hatcher, in his phone conversation with his mother in May, said he saw black mold everywhere.
“Black mold covered the ceiling. Every time I went there, my lungs always hurt. I know it must be a problem with the presence of black mold. All the jail would do is paint over it,” Campbell said of his time there.
Renfro mentioned that the detention center has already recorded two inmate deaths this year; she wonders if there might be a correlation between respiratory diseases and mould. “What about people with asthma, people with respiratory problems, their own employees? What are you going to do about it?”
In May, Timothy Norris Cox was pronounced dead after suffering a medical emergency. This followed the death of inmate Ashley Michelle Hicks who was also found in a medical emergency in February.
On the phone, Hatcher told his family about food going moldy or fruit starting to rot. Renfro asked a simple question: “Who inspects the food and would they serve this food to their own family?” We need state health inspectors to inspect the prison and we need food and kitchen inspection by state inspectors. »
Hatcher told his family in May: “They treat us badly here. They don’t give us cleaning products; they won’t let us visit our families. Our blocks are overcrowded with people sleeping on the floor. There is mold everywhere in the showers, I see black mold everywhere here.
“Our food was left outside for an hour and forty-five minutes, they don’t want to feed us because they’re mad that my family is down there,” he explained the situation as he believed it. Other inmates could be heard calling out issues they wanted to deal with inside, such as bedding, cleaning supplies, and out-of-jail calling issues. The meal was delivered to his part of the prison shortly after the phone call ended, he told his family.
Conditions such as overcrowding, Renfro knows, have been a problem at the prison, and she has faced similar issues here in years past. How there continue to be issues of the same nature confuses her, “Where does all the money go?” she asked rhetorically but received a response from fellow protester Mark Hatcher: “Over there,” he said, pointing to the location of the new prison.
“Inmates really need help, they’re not getting the attention they need,” Hatcher’s mother Flippen said. She knows her son needed an eczema cream for his skin condition which he doesn’t have.
Gross said of his experience with medical care, “If you’re a drug addict, they treat you like dirt. Don’t worry about yourself. They don’t try to help you when you stop using drugs. They put you in the hole and leave you there and check you after a few days.
“We’re fighting here for every inmate who’s in there, for every family who’s not here to be a voice for their loved ones,” Renfro said at the protest, noting that it’s not just his little -son of whom she is concerned. “We try to be everyone’s voice; we are there for everyone.
The US Constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment”, which includes inhumane treatment and conditions during confinement. If an inmate experiences treatment or conditions that they believe are unlawful, they must first file a grievance about the incident or conditions.
Campbell explained that she had tried to file a grievance while in jail: “I asked for (a grievance) the last time I was there because the guard wouldn’t give me a washcloth and I Never had one come. She said I should have said something then. I told her I was in one of the little visiting rooms; I was so out of place, honestly, that I didn’t know not even where I was at. I asked for a grievance, and they would say it’s not possible.
Flippen said she received a call last week: ‘I had an inmate named John contact me last night to say that Marquis had been sent to the hole for complaining about the cold food that had been given to him. No inmate who speaks about the conditions in this prison should be punished or treated differently because of the truth. She also said she spoke to her son on Thursday and he reported the same issues with cold food this week.
Catie Armstrong, press secretary for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, said, “The Complaints Intake Unit of the Division of Health Services Regulation at NCDHHS is available to receive complaints about the care and services provided to residents in institutions, including prisons. Complaints can be filed by any person concerned by the care of their loved one; it doesn’t have to be by the individual in a facility.
“We cannot comment on investigations or potential investigations. If people have concerns about the care provided in any facility, including a prison, they are strongly encouraged to file a complaint. To reach them, the telephone number for the Complaints Intake Unit is (919) 855-4500.
Basic human rights are expected to be upheld for detainees and protesters have indicated they seek the ethical and humane treatment of all detainees. They felt they were standing up for those inside the prison who have no voice or who feel their attempts to have a voice have been silenced. Protesters have expressed concern that grievances are not reaching prison superiors or, as Campbell said, not being allowed to be filed in the first place.
Lt. Randy Jenkins oversees Surry County Jail and spoke to Hatcher’s family in May. They got answers to some of their questions at the time, like getting the answer that it was a COVID restriction that prevented visits.
Jenkins responded to questions about food: “Catering services are provided by a contracted supplier. Food deliveries are received daily and inspected by the food service provider. Any complaints are immediately forwarded to the food service provider for resolution.
He said he was not aware of any problems with the phones and that cleaning supplies are provided daily for cleaning the dorms. Regarding medical care, he said their “medical provider makes decisions about drug dispersal and needs based on their protocols.”
Renfro and his family plan to return in the coming weeks to demonstrate in larger numbers outside the prison. They fear that prison staff are showing a lack of attention and that their efforts to shed light in the media and through direct contact with the sheriff’s office have not brought a solution.
“They really need to do something about what is really going on in Surry County Jail. There are too many things being swept under the rug and people being treated unfairly,” Renfro said. “Everyone should be treated the same.”
“We have to be more concerned about people than we are now because everyone is human and we can’t have favourites. We have to do well people.