By Taylor Knopf
State prison officials are reviewing early release for certain, nonviolent inmates who are considered high-risk for COVID-19 complications and those who are already scheduled to be released in 2020.
The Department of Public Safety released six inmates under these new criteria and is considering about 500 more. The six released so far were females who are pregnant or over the age of 65. DPS currently houses 34,042 inmates.
There’s been concern from criminal justice advocates, inmates and their families that conditions within prisons are not suitable for social distancing and proper hygiene during this pandemic. The fear is that the virus could spread quickly within the facilities and sicken many at once, overloading prison infirmaries and local hospital systems that receive patients from behind bars.
UPDATE, April 17, 2020: The NC Supreme Court dismissed prison legal advocates’ petition for the emergency release of certain inmates amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
The prison’s medical facilities also do not have any ventilators for inmates who may develop extreme complications of COVID-19. They would be sent to local hospitals.
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The first state prison inmate tested positive for the virus on April 1. Currently, more than 35 inmates in six facilities have tested positive. Additionally, 20 prison staff at 10 facilities reported to DPS positive tests for COVID-19.
A week following the first positive inmate test result, the ACLU of North Carolina and other advocacy organizations, along with inmates, filed an emergency lawsuit asking for early release of prisoners who are considered high-risk for COVID-19 due to their age or underlying health conditions.
Gov. Roy Cooper and DPS Sec. Erik Hooks responded to the lawsuit today, asking the courts to deny the request made by prison advocates. Instead, they announced the new criteria DPS is using to release inmates on a case-by-case basis.
They also reiterated the steps DPS has taken to protect inmates and staff from the virus, such as temperature checks and isolating those with symptoms.
Hooks wrote in an affidavit that the reentry process from prison to the community is complex, includes several steps and typically starts more than a year before an inmate’s release date.
“While reentry is complicated in the best of circumstances, the global pandemic caused by COVID-19 poses additional challenges,” he wrote. “State housing is still limited and an offender who reenters the community without housing or other necessary support is particularly vulnerable to the challenges brought by COVID-19.”
The department is legally restricted from releasing some inmates, such as those with felony convictions, before they’ve served their minimum sentence.
“These obligations are not waived, even in light of the pandemic,” Hooks wrote.
There are a couple of different ways inmates may be eligible for early release during this outbreak:
- Inmates with risk factors that make them more likely to face complications of COVID-19, such as pregnancy, old age or underlying health issues. These must be nonviolent inmates with a projected release date in 2020.
- Some inmates with upcoming release dates have been awarded discretionary time credits that will make them eligible for earlier release by reducing their minimum sentences. Through this process, about 400 inmates who were scheduled to be released between now and July have been released or will be released in the next few weeks.
- Due to the pandemic, the Parole Commission is allowing inmates enrolled in the Mutual Agreement Parole Program (MAPP) to accelerate their release dates within the next six months. As of today, four have been released through this program and 11 are scheduled to be released next week.
- DPS is reviewing inmate cases for early medical release if they are “permanently and totally disabled, terminally ill, or geriatric, and incapacitated to the extent that they do not pose a public safety risk.”
Hooks said in a news conference Monday that there’s an important distinction to be made about these releases.
“They’re extending the terms of confinement,” he said. “So they are still in our custody, they just may not be living at night within our facilities.”
They will be fully under the supervision of community corrections officers, Hooks added. Some could be under the watch of home monitoring or electronic monitoring programs. That will be determined on a case-by-case basis.
“If they fail to carry out this program successfully, they will be returned to the facilities,” Hooks said.
The lawyers who filed the lawsuit say state officials didn’t go far enough with the new early-release criteria.
“We don’t feel these measures are enough to reduce the population and protect the rights of people in DPS facilities,” said Disability Rights North Carolina lawyer Luke Woollard.
Woollard and the advocates who filed the lawsuit are crafting their response to be released later this week. Though inmates at high-risk for COVID-19 need to be protected through early release, he said, another goal is to reduce the overall population to create safe facilities for the inmates still incarcerated.
These reductions are not significant enough to make a difference, Woollard said.
The prison system is also limiting the number of new inmates coming into their facilities. All inmate transfers from county jails to the prison system have been suspended.
DPS will not accept new admission of people who have violated probation at this time.
The department is also working to release some nonviolent juvenile offenders awaiting trial with electronic monitoring or to community-based programs.