Dryden Quigley wins Frank Barrows Award for investigation of COVID death in Durham County jail

Quigley used public records and open meetings to reveal that Darrell Kersey died of COVID-19 after contracting the virus during an outbreak at the Durham County Detention Facility.

The North Carolina Open Government Coalition awarded the 2021 Frank Barrows Award for Excellence in Student Journalism to Dryden Quigley, a reporter for the Ninth Street Journal. The award recognizes Quigley’s 2020 investigation into the death of Darrell Kersey, who died after contracting COVID-19 while being detained at the Durham County Detention Facility.

Quigley first began reporting the story in August 2020 when Sheriff Clarence Birkhead told the Durham County Commission during a public meeting that an inmate was on a ventilator after contracting COVID-19 during an outbreak at the detention facility.

Quigley said that when she asked Sheriff Birkhead for an update on the man’s condition weeks later, he told her he was not allowed to speak about the inmate. “I guess that’s when my ears kind of perked up,” Quigley said. “He was speaking so freely about it before. I wonder what changed.”

“I went straight to the records at that point,” Quigley said. “The first place that I went to was the North Carolina state prison system press releases. I looked through those to see if something had happened, if it was reported, if something stuck out to me.”

Quigley combed through press releases, a public database of inmates in Durham County custody, and a variety of other public records to determine that Darrell Kersey was the man Sheriff Birkhead referenced in the August 2020 meeting. An anonymous source confirmed Quigley’s reporting, and Durham County officials confirmed the story’s accuracy in October 2020 as it was published.

During the past year, a wave of COVID-19 cases and related deaths occurred in North Carolina prisons and jails. Quigley’s use of public records and inmate databases situated Kersey’s death in the context of a statewide — if not nationally significant — story about health and safety in carceral facilities.

Without Quigley’s reporting, the public may never have known that Kersey’s death was linked to a COVID-19 outbreak in Durham’s central jail.

“The best journalism tells truth to power,” said Cathy Clabby, Adjunct Instructor in the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University, in her letter supporting Quigley’s nomination. “Dryden spoke it loudly last fall.”

When asked about what this experience could teach North Carolinians about government transparency, Quigley said, “If you hear something that doesn’t sound right, you should follow up on it. I think anyone can do that, and the resources are more at your fingertips than you think they are.”

Quigley is the second winner of the annual Frank Barrows Award, which recognizes the accomplishments of a collegiate journalist or newsroom at a North Carolina university whose work exemplifies the vital role of open meetings, public records, and press access in public life.

Quigley thanked Cathy Clabby, her editor at the Ninth Street Journal, and Bill Adair, her first editor and Director of the DeWitt Wallace Center at Duke. Quigley will graduate from Duke University in May 2021.