A group of Black Lives Matters protesters gathered downtown Saturday evening to demand more accountability from the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office and better treatment for the inmates detained in the Forsyth County Jail.
A group of roughly 100, virtually all of them wearing masks, began congregating about 6 p.m. in Winston Square Park, where organizers draped banners from the upper breezeway listing the protesters’ demands.
Protest organizer Tony Ndege pointed to previous medical treatment related deaths at the Forsyth County Jail as evidence the sheriff’s office should release inmates due to inferior medical care provided by Wellpath, the jail’s medical contractor. Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough has spoken previously about the shortcomings of Wellpath while also acknowledging the limited options when it comes to finding an inmate health care provider.
Other speakers, such as Sara Hines, joined Ndege in making emboldened calls for Kimbrough to release inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People who go to prison, they don’t stop being a family member,” Hine said, “they don’t stop being sons, they don’t stop being daughters, they don’t stop being friends and they don’t stop being a part of our community.”
Ndege also spoke at length about a story published by the Winston-Salem Journal on Friday about the most recent known inmate death in the jail.
“It’s very important we keep up with this case,” Ndege told the crowd in reference to the story about John Neville, a man who died in December three days after being booked into the jail.
The N.C. State Bureau of Investigation has been investigating Neville’s death for seven months, yet the sheriff’s office had not publicly acknowledged Neville’s passing until asked about it by the Journal.
Chants of “Say his name” and “John Neville” were heard throughout the evening as the protesters marched through downtown and by the jail.
In an interview, Ndege said he and others were “completely surprised” by the news when they saw it Friday, and that the local Black Lives Matter chapter is now demanding the sheriff’s office and SBI release any videos related to Neville’s death.
The sheriff’s office said Neville died of a “medical emergency,” however, Chris Clifton, who represents Neville’s estate, told the Journal in a statement Friday that he and his clients are waiting to see if criminal charges will be brought at the end of the SBI’s investigation.
“I don’t trust the SBI to do a real investigation of John Neville’s death,” Ndege told protesters gathered outside the jail.
Kimbrough told the Journal Friday he expects the SBI to conclude its investigation within the next 10 days.
Black Lives Matter organizers called for all inmates to be tested — the sheriff’s office announced earlier in the week it would do so — for inmates to be given seven masks a week, for calls and letters to become permanently free and for inmates at risk of COVID-19 complications to be released from the jail.
At least seven members of the jail staff had tested positive for the virus as of Friday, according to the most recently available data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
Throughout the evening, speakers read letters from inmates in the jail about the conditions inside throughout the pandemic.
The inmates, whose identities were kept anonymous by members of the Jail Outreach Initiative, described feelings of isolation and fear. Some were fearful of the implications that come with a positive test, meaning isolation in a cell, while others described substandard living conditions such as black mold in the cell blocks and poor-quality masks that easily break.
As protesters sat on the ground outside of the jail, some shouting “We see you, we love you,” inmates could be heard tapping on the walls and some looked out at the windows, smiling.