By Hannah Critchfield

Nine jails in North Carolina have reported new COVID-19 outbreaks since August 1.

The infections have occurred just as the state has begun to see a hint of stabilization in its overall COVID-19 cases.

The vast majority of these jails — in Avery, Carteret, Catawba, Gaston, Orange, Rutherford, Stokes and Wilkes counties — had no previous outbreaks, making this their first correctional outbreak since the pandemic began. Rutherford County Jail in particular has been particularly hard hit, with 21 inmates and five staff infected.

Durham County Detention Facility, where an outbreak in April killed one staffer, reported eight new cases among inmates on Sunday.

“Our worst fear has come true inside the facility and we are taking immediate and corrective steps to get in front of it,” Sheriff Clarence F. Birkhead said in a press release announcing the outbreak.

What caused the outbreaks?

It’s difficult to completely prevent outbreaks in congregate settings such as jails, as staff must enter and exit facilities each day.

However, one jail’s outbreak, Avery County Detention Center, resulted from the transfer of an inmate from a state prison under the Misdemeanant Confinement Program, a partnership in which county facilities hold low-level, convicted prisoners on behalf of the state. Like other types of transfers, the program has not ceased during the pandemic.

Because the Department of Public Safety, the agency that oversees the state prison system, is currently the subject of a lawsuit over COVID-19 conditions, people who are transferred must now either undergo quarantine upon arrival or receive a COVID-19 test prior to entry, according to Citlaly Mora, communications strategist at the the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the plaintiffs in the case.

This inmate was asymptomatic, according to Avery County Sheriff Kevin Frye.

A detention staffer at Orange County Detention Center, who contracted the virus from a significant other, similarly did not show symptoms in their initial days with COVID-19. Two more staff tested positive in late July (these cases did not appear on the Department of Health and Human Services website until August), and after mass testing was conducted, one incarcerated person had the virus.

Arrangements were made “immediately to remove him from the facility,” according to Alicia Stemper, director of public information at Orange County Sheriff’s Office.

“As a congregate living facility, we feel very fortunate to have only had one inmate with COVID 19 and we are pleased to report our staff members are recovering,” Stemper said in an emailed statement.

It’s possible this inmate already had the virus — he too had been transferred from another facility days earlier.

“That inmate had been in a different facility since April and arrived at the Orange County facility on July 20,” said Stemper, noting this was the same day the officer’s COVID-19 test result came back positive. “As is protocol, the new inmate was in isolation the first three days at our facility. He or she showed no symptoms and was transferred into a regular cell.”

When the local health department engaged in mass testing of all inmates on July 23, this person was the only one who tested positive, according to Stemper.

We see Andréa “Muffin” Hudson, director of the North Carolina Community Bail Fund of Durham, wearing sunglasses and a mask as she waits to bail out black fathers outside the Durham County Detention Facility. Her organization raised $100,000 for bail funds on Father's Day 2020.
Andréa “Muffin” Hudson, director of the North Carolina Community Bail Fund of Durham. Photo credit: Hannah Critchfield

Carteret County Jail, where two employees have the virus, also said a detention staffer likely infected other staffers. One inmate has since tested positive and is in isolation; they’re awaiting results from mass testing of all staff, according to Carteret County Sheriff Asa Buck.

The Durham County Detention Facility has engaged in contact tracing with the local health department, according to AnnMarie Breen, public information officer for the Durham County Sheriff’s Office. She declined to comment on any suspected origin of the outbreak at this time.

Other sheriff’s offices whose jails are experiencing new outbreaks have not yet responded to requests for comment.

‘If they had money, they’d be free’

Not everyone who is eligible for release has been let go within the 99 county jails across the state, as criminal justice reform groups have pointed out since the novel coronavirus virus hit the United States in full force in March. Some individuals remain incarcerated because they’re unable to pay bail fees — advocates claim these fines serve as a “poll tax” that denies the person’s right to a healthy, safe living environment amid the pandemic.

“It’s a lot of folks who are here only because they’re poor,” Andréa “Muffin” Hudson, director of the NC Community Bail Fund of Durham, previously told NC Health News in a June interview. “It’s not a public safety issue — because if they had money, they’d be free.”

Jails and prisons have been called incubators for COVID-19. As in other congregate settings such as nursing homes, these environments place large numbers of people in relatively small spaces where it can be difficult to socially distance.

In North Carolina, the burden of pretrial detention disproportionately falls on black and brown people and those living with disabilities, according to Luke Woollard, staff attorney at Disability Rights NC.

“Folks with disabilities of all types are overrepresented in North Carolina jails,” he said. “And people with specific disabilities are at heightened risk for serious complications or even death if they contract COVID. Medical services provided in jails varies county to county, and is often inadequate to meet the growing need, especially during a pandemic.”

On nearly every Friday since April, Decarcerate Mecklenburg, a local coalition of attorneys, advocates and community members, has led demonstrations outside the Mecklenburg County Detention Center to call for the release of people incarcerated inside. During an August 7 protest, the group accused the jail of “disregard for human life,” according to the News & Observer. The facility currently has 59 jailed people who are infected with the virus.

“There’s a difference between a COVID outbreak in a jail and a COVID outbreak in a prison,” said Kristie Puckett-Williams, a statewide campaign manager at the ACLU of North Carolina who helps organize the Friday protests. “It’s actually more dangerous in a jail because people are coming in and going out. If they go in without COVID and come out with it, now they’re back in the community with the disease. Not just inside a facility with it. It’s a public health issue, like we’ve been saying all along: Correctional health is public health.”

The coalition is asking for jails in the state to release all people who are awaiting trial for a misdemeanor crime, according to Puckett-Williams.

“Our research team, along with others across the country, is seeing a push to lessen the populations within jails,” said Felicia Arriaga, an anthropologist and professor at Appalachian State University who has studied North Carolina sheriff’s offices’ responses to COVID-19. “For organizers, I think it’s also an opportunity to push decarceration, and to maintain populations at a low level, because of the issues of social distancing within jails.“

To date, there have been no confirmed deaths of jailed people due to COVID-19-related causes in North Carolina.


UPDATE: This story has been updated with an additional quote from the ACLU of NC.

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Critchfield is NC Health News' Report for America corps member. Report for America is a national service program that places talented emerging journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered...