Program Report: Diane Standaert – Human Relations Committee Report on Jail Operations

Back before the election in 2016 Michael Moore, the award-winning documentarian produced and starred in a movie called Where To Invade Next. To the more politically conservative among us, Mr. Moore might be considered a left wing propogandist. Many who lean left (Okay, me at least) consider his film, maybe a little hyperbolic, but full of insights on social problems that we struggle with.

I was reminded of the film as Diane Standaert got into her program presentation on the Durham Human Rights Commission’s review of the practices of the Durham County Jail. Ms. Standaert who was introduced by Elisabeth Wiener, came in her role as the Chair of that Commission. She has a JD from the University of North Carolina School of law and holds the position of EVP and Director of State Policy for the Center for Responsible Lending, the policy affiliate of Self Help, which fights to prevent predatory lending across the country.

In May of 2016, following several months of protests and the death of Matthew McCain in the Durham County Detention Facility, the Commission did study the problem and issued a report in January of 2017 and updated it later that March. The report included ten major recommendations that Ms. Standaert covered in detail, most of which reflected the need for more transparency in the operations of the jail.

See shared some statistics about the numbers of our neighbors that are incarcerated and the broader measure of the number of them impacted, using visitor statistics that may still understate the problem. Even a brief stay in jail may put great strains on a family including the loss of jobs. These might be dismissed with and “oh well, they broke the law, didn’t they?” except for the disproportionate number of the incarcerated who are poor and/or people of color and most have not been convicted yet.  This also reflects a well-documented fact that incarceration was often used as a tool of repression of blacks after emancipation and lingers today, in some places more than others.

The reason Michael Moore’s movie came to mind is that incarceration was one of the issues he dealt with by playfully travelling the globe to “conquer” different countries and “steal back” ideas that originated here. What I recalled was the discussion of a country’s humane prison system compared with the often harsh and overcrowded prisons here.

When I got home, I indulged in a new bad habit, streaming movies, and watched the film again. The country mentioned above turned out to be Norway.  However, there was also another segment that was closely related that dealt with the “war on drugs.” Turns out a very successful approach to the problem was found in Portugal. They decriminalized drugs altogether.  This is related because strict enforcement of drug laws has become a tool of repression, filled our jails and raised the specter of mass incarceration.

Ms. Standaert reminded us that most of the people in our jail are there awaiting trial or some or some other disposition. The average stay is 19 days (at a cost of about $125 per day). Many are there because they cannot afford even minimal bail and more often then not have their cases dismissed when they are finally dealt with. One of the key recommendations of the commission was therefore to eliminate the cash bail system (which is something the courts must do if it is to be done) as well as other hinderances to releasing low-level defendants ahead of trial.

Moore makes his way through several other Western European Countries and deals with topics including education and the treatment of labor, but towards the end he hits two countries who are leading the advancement of civilization through the leadership of women. The first was Tunisia, a Muslim nation in Northern Africa which re-wrote its constitution to give women a much larger role in their society and finally Iceland, where the only bank to survive the financial collapse was run by women and which had the first democratically elected woman as president.

This last trend shouldn’t surprise any of us in Durham Rotary. Three of our County Commissioners are Rotarians and Women. Look at the list of past presidents and Rotarians of the Year and there is a lot less testosterone than there was 20 or 30 years ago.  Presentations given by people like Ms. Standaert, the volunteer leader of the Human Rights Commission, also illustrate the point.  Ms. Standaert ended the presentation by volunteering to deliver the presentation in other venues that we are involved with.

To get the full impact of Michael Moore’s movie, I strongly recommend it; it’s thought provoking and entertaining and you may conclude as I have, that as Americans maybe we shouldn’t be so smug about our own greatness and look at solutions to our problems that have been successfully tried in other countries. But first read the two-page summary of the Human Rights Commissions recommendations for getting more out of our jail. Get it here.

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