By Taylor Knopf
UPDATE: On June 24, DPS reached out to NC Health News to say that currently, their outside hospitalization rate for offenders is zero and that the greatest number hospitalized was 11 inmates, in mid-to-late-April. Department of Public Safety spokesman John Bull also said the department was working to provide more information on their website, but declined to give a time frame for the presentation of this information.
Prison officials announced they would test all North Carolina state inmates for COVID-19 after a judge found on June 16 that the department may be in violation of federal and state statutes that prevent “cruel or unusual punishment.”
Legal advocates have sued the governor and leaders of the state Department of Public Safety with some success, saying that coronavirus would be a “death sentence” for some inmates.
So far, five inmates and one prison nurse have died from the virus.
The lawsuit asked for early release of high-risk, nonviolent offenders with release dates in the coming year. This would keep those more likely to suffer COVID-19 complications out of harm’s way while reducing the prison population and allowing more space for social distancing inside, the lawyers argued.
And the plaintiffs wanted prison officials to ensure the safety of those who remain incarcerated by reducing transfers of inmates from one facility to another, testing inmates for the virus and creating a better plan to maintain social distancing.
Wake County Superior Court Judge Vinston Rozier wrote last week that the plaintiffs were likely to win their case against the state.
“It appears based on the record that Defendants have failed to provide the sufficient COVID-19 testing to accompany the crowded and communal social distancing protocols,” Rozier wrote.
After the judge asked DPS to submit a plan for how it could test all inmates, Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee announced Thursday that DPS had started the process of testing all 31,000 inmates for the virus. It will take 60 days and $3.3 million, he said during a press conference on June 18.
“This ruling affirms that state officials have a constitutional obligation to protect the health and safety of the people in their custody and combat the spread of this deadly disease,” said ACLU of NC attorney Leah Kang in a press release.
“The deadly outbreaks in our state prisons have already claimed six lives and continue to threaten all North Carolinians, especially communities of color which have been disproportionately impacted by this pandemic.”
The judge also required DPS to submit a detailed report, including photos or videos, of the measures taken inside each prison to protect inmates from the spread of the virus.
“Defendants are providing disparate levels of COVID-19 protection between different facilities. The Court finds that these actions, at the very least, lie ‘somewhere between the poles of negligence at one end and purpose or knowledge at the other,’” Rozier concluded.
Infection and hospitalization rates unknown
Because only 10 percent of inmates have been tested before last week, prisoners said they live in fear because they don’t know who is infected.
“Defendants admit that the actual rate of infection in the incarcerated population is not known,” DPS officials wrote in a court document filed June 1.
Of the 3,451 inmates tested to date, 774 have been reported as infected with the virus.
Before DPS’s announcement to test all inmates, 36 facilities reported that they had conducted fewer than 10 tests. And no inmates have been tested in 10 of the state’s prisons. Facility-wide testing had occurred at only two sites, Neuse Correctional Institution in Goldsboro and one unit of the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh. At Neuse, 66 percent of tests completed came back positive in early April. At the women’s prison, 24 percent of tests came back positive in late April.
A number of inmates have been hospitalized with the virus, but it’s difficult to know exactly how many.
In a memo to a state senator, DPS officials wrote that 11 inmates were hospitalized with COVID-19 as a “peak average” in April. The memo skips the month of May and states that two inmates were hospitalized in the first week of June.
Sen. Harper Peterson (D-Wilmington) asked DPS officials for more information regarding inmate testing, contact tracing and hospitalizations during a Prison Safety Committee earlier this month. Peterson told NC Health News that he was “concerned about the number of inmates who haven’t been tested,” while noting that there is “so little information” regarding COVID-19 and state inmates.
In early May, NC Health News asked DPS how many inmates were hospitalized due to the virus and a department spokesman said that information could not be made public.
Too many transfers, not enough space
Inmates said in sworn testimonies that they cannot keep 6 feet between themselves and others. Instead, they’ve been told to sleep in alternate directions in bunk beds only an arm’s length apart.
A typical dorm includes 34 inmates who share one bathroom with four toilets, four sinks and four showers. Inmates and public health officials have said it’s impossible to properly socially distance in this environment.
In an effort to reduce the spread of the virus and make room inside the prisons, DPS released some nonviolent offenders early. But that totaled about 400 people, according to court documents. Usually, the prison system has about 34,000 inmates, but after changes due to the pandemic, the prison population is down to about 31,000.
During the early months of the pandemic, there was a stay on new admissions from jails to prisons. Those resumed on June 8.
By the end of May, there were 1,669 prisoners backlogged in jail facilities. These are inmates who have been sentenced but are waiting in county jails for space to open up in the prison system. DPS plans to move about 700 of those people into the prison system in June, with hopes of eliminating the backlog by September, according to a memo from the NC Sheriffs’ Association. This plan was still in place at the time of publication.
Last week, Judge Rozier also ordered DPS to halt transfers of inmates from one prison to another, other than for medical or safety reasons.
“Defendants are transferring incarcerated individuals between facilities without properly protecting those individuals, or preventing the spread of COVID-19, in contradiction to Centers for Disease Control guidelines,” Rozier wrote in his order.
DPS significantly reduced transfers at the beginning of the pandemic, averaging about 44 transfers per day, according to DPS data presented in court documents. But by the last week of May, transfers rose to an average of 195 per day, many between prisons with positive COVID-19 cases and those without.
By Thursday, Prison Commissioner Ishee announced that all offenders coming from county jails and those transferred between prisons would be tested as well.