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?
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 (PDF)
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.
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.