By Taylor Knopf

North Carolina has 100 counties each with their own sheriff and jail system, meaning there are 100 different responses to the COVID-19 pandemic for jail inmates across the state.

On Tuesday, North Carolina’s sheriffs joined Gov. Roy Cooper on a conference call with questions about what to do if the virus is transmitted within the walls of their facilities. Does the state have resources to help quarantine or treat jail inmates with coronavirus?

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His answer: State corrections resources are at capacity, look to your local health departments and hospitals.

But advocates worry that the virus could spread rapidly if it were introduced to the jails, due to the tight living conditions and lack of appropriate sanitation and personal protective supplies.

North Carolina jails often have few medical personnel and resources on site. Because of this, they can send up to 200 inmates with serious medical conditions — which are called “safekeepers” — to the state prison system for housing and treatment.

The prison system said it has already reached that 200 person cap, Cooper wrote in a letter on Thursday that NC Health News obtained, where he provided written responses to questions from members of the NC Sheriffs Association.

“Like many of you, the Division of Prisons is extremely short staffed and therefore does not have the capability to take on all high medical need offenders at this time,” he wrote.

Additionally, there are no ventilators to treat inmates who contract COVID-19 at the state’s two correctional medical facilities, located at Central Prison and North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, both in Raleigh.

Possible jail inmates in need of a ventilator must be taken to local hospitals, Cooper wrote.

The state health department put out recommendations for jails and prisons on how to prepare for, prevent and treat coronavirus patients. And the state prison system suspended inmate visitation for 30 days to help slow the spread of the virus.

The state recommends that inmates who test positive should be isolated from the rest of the inmates and that corrections staff use personal protective equipment when interacting with them.

Gov Cooper memo 03-26-20 (Text)

But with dormitory style jail housing, this could prove difficult among the smaller facilities across the state. And with the lack of masks, gloves and other protective equipment, it’s likely not all detention centers are equipped for protecting jail staff.

The sheriffs asked Cooper if there were facilities available to help quarantine jail inmates who show symptoms or test positive for the virus.

Cooper said “no.” “Your local health department may be able to assist you with guidance and resources,” he wrote.

At time of publication, NC Health News is unaware of any jail inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 in North Carolina. There has been one case of a staff member at the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner who tested positive for COVID-19, the News & Observer reported Thursday.

graphic including an image of coronavirus

Advocates call for certain inmate releases

Criminal justice advocates are highly concerned about the virus entering North Carolina’s jails.

“Just going in makes you vulnerable,” said Luke Woollard, attorney with Disability Rights NC. “Social distancing is difficult. Medical care is limited.”

Sometimes there isn’t access to soap and other hygiene products to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses. Inmates could be housed with others showing symptoms, he said.

The same concerns exist within the state prison system, he added. However, the jail population is more transient, while the prison system is more fixed due to longer sentences.

Up north, the rate of coronavirus cases in Rikers Island and other New York City jails is seven times higher than that of the city’s population.

“Once the coronavirus is introduced into the [prison or jail] setting it would be extremely difficult to control its spread,” Daniel Nagin, a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon with a focus on criminology said in an interview with TIME. “It doesn’t surprise me that this problem has arisen at Rikers and at this point we will likely see it at other [facilities].”

North Carolina criminal justice advocates wrote letters to the governor, prison officials, sheirffs, district attorneys and police chiefs across the state with recommendations to reduce the inmate population during this pandemic. The letter to the Governor asks for the following:

  • Commuting sentences for older and vulnerable citizens with compromised immune systems, anyone who is within 12 months of release from their active sentence, and to anyone currently being held on a technical violation of probation or parole.
  • Expediting mass release of those permanently disabled, geriatric or terminally ill through the Department of Public Safety’s Home Leave program and Transition Services.
  • Expediting the review of people eligible for parole, particularly those over 65 years of age.

Many jails are already operating at or over capacity, according to a study by the UNC School of Government. 

“COVID-19 poses the greatest risk of death to older persons and to those who are immunocompromised, suffer from diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and other lung conditions, high blood pressure, and those with cancer,” advocates wrote in a press release.

“Releasing older adults and people with underlying health conditions who present a low public safety risk from the state’s prisons will reduce overcrowding, reduce the spread of the deadly virus, and free up health care services to properly address the needs of those who remain inside the prisons.”

Some county jails respond to COVID-19

Some county jails that have already taken steps to reduce their inmate populations amidst the pandemic.

Mecklenburg County detention center started releasing inmates on a case-by-case basis last week, according to the Charlotte Observer. About 50 inmates were scheduled to be released last week and more are expected.

In Alamance County, the jail is hoping to prevent possible spread of the virus by suspending all intermittent sentences, those people who serve their sentences only on weekends or weekdays.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said her office has told local law enforcement to cite people instead of arresting them when appropriate to reduce the number of people newly entering jail.

Wake is still operating four courts a day to continue to resolve cases, she said in an email. When someone is arrested and brought before a judge for the first time, Freeman is asking for unsecured bonds — or bonds with no money attached — for low level, non-violent offenses.

This means people could wait for their court hearings outside jail without putting up cash or property they would have to relinquish if they fail to show up to their hearing. That speeds up the process for pretrial release.

“We will continue to review cases of people in our local jail to determine if release is appropriate,” Freeman said.

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Taylor Knopf

Taylor Knopf writes about mental health, including addiction and harm reduction. She lives in Raleigh and previously wrote for The News & Observer. Knopf has a bachelor's degree in sociology with a...

26 replies on “NC governor to sheriffs: No extra state COVID-19 resources available for jail inmates”

  1. I have a son in prison non violent made a mistake very loved and needed by his family does not need the virus . Governor cooper needs to commute the sick and non violent or put them on house arrest prisons r more easily infected than a jail and more people to get sick. All u hear is federal federal which usually means drug dealers let state prisoners out early not just federal ones I love and need my son as my health is bad thanks

  2. Why is North Carolina not helping the State inmates? I have clearly read that there no ventilators available for inmates that are currently incarcerated with in the State prison that is absurd! What is North Carolina going to do let them all just die? Sounds to me if they didn’t have a death sentence they do now. Why are they not allowing people to be released that are non-violent offenders. Seems to me only the rich are being let out federal systems sad. Throwing away the state system imates with a who cares attitude very sad. Roy Cooper I hope you change this fast before it enters the prison system. (Because as you said their no ventilators for the inmates! ) These are people’s mother’s father’s children.

  3. I need my wife we have 5 kids she has never been in trouble. Credit card fraud 6 6 to 17 which makes it 3 years mandatory. She only had a seatbelt ticket before this. Accused of stealing 10,000 bucks. 3 to 4 years a mother of 5 really? Same father 23 years of marriage. What’s wrong with Rutherford county court system??? Free my wife

    1. My wife just got out of prison and completed 9 months of post release probation got help as far as mentally and we have three kids at home young kids and she is pregnant at the women’s prison in Raleigh on Bragg Street and they still haven’t released her but they have a few people some pregnant and elderly but I don’t see why I’m with her being in minimum custody being pregnant with a non violent crime and has just been sent back to prison pregnant again and if my wife gets sick and my or my son and her beIly i will sue some kind of action will be taken. #FreeShelbyPhillips #Freepreggoprisoners

  4. are they going to let out non violent inmates in person county roxboro nc. i need my husband out of there. he is all i have. i am slowly dying of heart disease and i need his help. the stress of worrying about him and being alone is making it worse on me. please release the non violent inmates now before its to late.

  5. This is ridiculous. I hear there are inmates already being isolated for this virus. I wonder if there is any truth to this? That make sense as to why there is no room for safekeep inmates. These inmates are human as well.

  6. My son has 20 days left in Davidson correctional as of today 3-31-2020 with no infractions. He was getting home passes before the restrictions. He was also on work release. Not all inmates are violent!
    Even his case manager said he should be released. My daughter recently had a kidney transplant. It would great if he was released early to keep our family together safe and well from this Covid-19
    I’m Praying for a Miracle
    If we have to wait 20 more days that’s what God would want…. I hope anyone that has a loved one on the inside to never give up on your love one.
    Keep trusting the Lord. I wouldn’t have made it without him these last 4 yrs.

    We have a group on Facebook if anyone would like to follow his story!
    ???? name of the group

  7. Not all inmates are sociopaths or bad people. My son is being housed in an open dorm and I’m terrified he will never see his day in court. The constant worry of his safety and well being has now turned into worrying if this virus ends up in the jail he’s at. He is very much loved and I believe at this time and state of emergency ALL inmates should atleast be given the opportunity to bond out or be released on house arrest. Never giving up hope and never giving up on him. This virus would wipe out the complete population of any jail, especially with no medical staff. He is a son, brother , uncle and again, very loved.

  8. Please don’t allow my loved one to get this virus after almost serving 20 yrs for nonviolent crime. Only 39 days left for him please let him go.

    1. Write the Governor ask he be released give your reasons be clear, and be true in your desire to see the prisoners and staff be safe. In that early release will help over crowding and make the prisons safer for all inmates and staff.Ask for executive order for humanitarian relief. Sign it with your legal name.

  9. The majority of jail inmates are still “Innocent until proven guilty”. Get their bonds “unsecured” & LET THEM OUT! Then use the tidy sum made by housing individuals to protect & provide for the others. Instead of the Dept having Cadillac Escalades, etc., use the $ made for the benefit of the inmates in a humane fashion for a change.

  10. My loved one has only 3 months to release. The NCDPS needs to be proactive and release the inmates under 1 year especially if they have a home plan in place and approved . Mine does ! What is wrong with the NCDPS system . They are human beings first and for most . Everyone should have a second chance considering the behind the story situations that everyone does not know . Release the inmates before this is catastrophic event .

  11. Kentucky is releasing C and D classification inmates. So I heard. However,
    Roy Cooper doesn’t care about our loved ones in his NC prison system.
    My son is in Franklin Correctional, tells me if they get sick they will be put into the hole and no medicine will be given. This is true of any illness they get.
    Right now seems there are 6 cases already in various NC prisons. It does not look good for the prison system in NC. Cooper just says NO special resources will be given to them. Makes no sense!

    1. They need to let the NC imates out Now. My husband is on a work release camp ! How can people just sit back and let this go down without helping them yes they made bad choices or mistakes but my God this is a death sentence! My husband isn’t far from your loved one. May God lay on Roy Coopers Heart to help them and release them soon as possible! This is very Sad. God bless us all.

  12. I have a husband in prison right now and I am extremely worried about his well-being. The disease inside a prison would spread like wild fire! I suggest letting all “non-violent” offenders out. It is not like they would cause harm to the public, they are “non-violent.” It would keep them safe from the pandemic and it would free up a large amount of space in the prisons. Thus, creating more room to spread out the rest of the prisoners so the spread of the virus inside the facility would be less likely. There are way too many prisoners inside the prisons to separate all prisoners far enough apart to keep them and staff members safe. Also, with less population inside the prisons, the staff members may be able to control any riots that may up-roar, or any other activities that may arise. I know everyone who has a loved one incarcerated is concerned for their well-being, so something should be done that makes the most sense and that would be most helpful for prisoners and staff. Therefore, I say, let out all those whose time is almost up, the elderly who are not violent, the ill, and the “non-violent.”

  13. Isn’t this a violation of the 8th amendment? To keep human beings locked away as a deadly virus spreads throughout the system; isn’t this considered cruel and unusual punishment?
    To leave these men and women confined, when many of them are non violent and have paid the majority of their debt to the prison system, not to mention those that are innocent is distortion.

    For example what happened to the North Carolina First Step Act (SB 404) being passed.
    This bill Would allow the early release of non-violent inmates.
    By Honoring these proceedings, the state population would to be lessened, just as the Federal Prison Population, moreover Both would be doing their part to stop the systemic spread of the deadly Covid-19 .
    For the State not to take this global pandemic into consideration would be like committing MASS genocide on the NC prison population.

    I know the State Prison System is a business and like any Business owner you’d hate to go bankrupt but these are HUMAN BEINGS.

    What happened to preserving life?
    You should not give death sentences to those that were not sentenced to death!
    How could any Governor sleep at night with this much blood on their hands…

    1. The First Step Act didn’t pass…
      Your best bet for advocacy would be your elected officials! I’d suggest calling your representative or senator.

      1. These elected officials, representatives and senators are so sinister that they pick and choose which lives to care about when all lives matter. Penny weight, dime rocks and non violent drug offenses should not be punishable by death! Maybe we should be more careful about who we chose to elect as Governor of North Carolina. Anyone who is willing to commit Mass Genocide on a prison population should not hold any seat in public or private office.
        The 8th amendment of the constitution which is the supreme law of the land was passed many, many years ago to protect people from cruel and unusual punishment. To Leave someone in prison who has completed the majority of their time to die from COVID-19 is cruel and unusual. This is a human rights violation to the highest degree!

  14. Take all the people that’s on probation that has been doing what has been asked of them staying out of trouble passing drug test etc and let them off probation free up some of those officers time and let non violent offends out of prison onto parole for the remainder of there sentence probation and parole already has more case load than they can handle so let people off probation and let prisoners out on parole because we all know if you get sick in prison they just stick you in the hole and forget about you they will bring you a non aspirin around twice a day that’s about the best medical you’re gonna get ease our over crowed correctional system free inmates and probation cases if someone has been on probation 3 years out of a 5year term and has been doing everything righ let him go and bring a inmate out on parole in his place

  15. My daughter is incarcerated in Anson County Correctional Facility for Women. Last week inmates were transferred from Raleigh (where they have the virus) to her facility. I think the Governor should address the situation of early release. My daughter has under a year left on her 7 yr sentence with a minimum of 5years. She has done almost all of the 5 yrs. These inmates have paid almost all of their dues. Put them under house arrest with a bond. Of course the State Prisons are big money makers. They wouldn’t want to lose that money coming in. Governor Cooper does not really care about the wellfare of the inmates. Ventalators is not his problem. He’s pushed that off on the County Health Care. I think this situation must be addressed immediately for the incarcerated. The are left as the forgotten people of the world.

  16. Its ridiculous that they will not do anything in this situation especially people who have a home and support system and are their for simple dumb things such as paraphernalia or a license plate that resulted in a violation of probation or parole they should definitely let those people go home

  17. My son is just being held with no charges, haven’t been tried and done been process so why is they still holding him? I feel he should be released. I’m scared my son may get the virus so please Governor let him go.

  18. My husband calls everyday and new ones coming in more and more hyde corrctional has not stopped transporting and hasn’t gave no mask or anything to protect them the inmates say they feel like gov cooper only wants all the money he can get out of them for each day they r there he only has a couple months and why would you gov cooper wait until we have to read about them I am not one who will walk away your promised to always do what it takes to keep them safe while they are in doc and you are living day after day cause if anything happens to Jeffery davis inmate 0101285 and you choose not to get him home very very soon you are saying that you don’t care for his or anyone’s health or lives at all cause it’s not something that has happened and done it’s something that you know is on the way to those inmates and because of a mistake you think it’s OK and put them in a fence and forget who they are that’s not a governer that’s a murder so why should you not have to stand trail for each inmate and worker you just let wash away to this devil virus and you acting has if you are it’s right hand man I assure you that waiting until the virus clears the beds in those situations dorms makes the room you have needed to give safe space to win this war is OK cause if you can’t read comment after comment to how upset your voters are then we are looking forward to the last day you are in control of a humans life like you think you are higher than the Lord I can assure you he is and will be your judge like you sit and do on us everyday and the pain and fear you allow
    Angela davis
    Wife of Jeffery davis

    1. This comment was edited to a maximum of 350 words, in keeping with our comments policy.

  19. Thanks for turning your back on our loved ones. You fall right in there with the corrupt legal system. No worries, when voting time rolls around, we can turn our backs on you.

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