By Hannah Critchfield

The westernmost jail in North Carolina sits in Cherokee County, a lush, mountainous area on the Tennessee border with several tracts of sovereign land belonging to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

A few weeks ago, Joe Wood, chief officer at the Cherokee County Detention Center, got a call from a staffer who said he’d tested positive for COVID-19. Shortly after, an inmate in his 50s noticed he couldn’t taste his coffee — he made it stronger, but still nothing.

Then a member of the command staff tested positive. The jail instigated mass testing.

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In February, 29 inmates – at the time, a little over a quarter of the county’s active cases – and six staff tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

“They’re higher risk because they’re all together,” said Wood. “Like the nursing homes, everybody’s living in one place, so when it gets in it becomes an issue.”

It’s the first time the jail had experienced an outbreak since the pandemic began almost exactly a year ago.

As the vaccine rollout continues in North Carolina, so does the spread of the novel coronavirus in county jails. Outbreaks in these facilities are often linked to spread in the larger community, as correctional staff must go in and out of jails and return to their families each day.

Last month, 38 jails within the state had COVID-19 outbreaks, more at a single time than at any other point in the pandemic. Thirty of them still have active outbreaks.

Correctional staff have begun to get vaccinated through their local health departments. Over three-fourths of Durham County Sheriff’s Office staff have received doses of the vaccine, as have many employees at the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office.

But for the various groups of people who end up incarcerated, it’s not so simple.

Local law enforcement partnerships with federal and state agencies, coupled with varying allocations to local county health departments, mean some jailed people may receive the vaccines at different times, even if it’s “their turn” under North Carolina’s rollout plan – and sometimes, even if they’re inside the same jail.

People awaiting trial

Jails are not the same as prisons. It’s a common misconception, and an understandable one: The United States criminal justice system is complicated.

Generally, jails are designed to hold “pre-trial detainees” – people who have not yet been convicted of a crime and are awaiting their day in court.

Many of these people could be released while they await trial – if they can afford it. Approximately 30 percent of all pre-trial inmates in jail are there because they cannot pay bail, often for low-level offenses such as drug or property crime, according to the American Bar Association.

People of color are often disproportionately represented in jails, partially because Black people and Latinos are more likely to be held on cash bail than white defendants, and they receive bail amounts that can be up to twice as high.

Only incarcerated people who are 65 and older can currently receive the vaccine. That will change next week. On Thursday, Gov. Roy Cooper announced that people in Group 4 at higher risk – including inmates in correctional facilities – will become eligible on March 17.

People in jails are typically younger than people in prison, who have been found guilty of a crime, meaning many of them likely will not be eligible for the vaccine until the opening of this group, which includes “anyone who is incarcerated or living in other close group living settings who is not already vaccinated due to age, medical condition or job function.”

The oldest Cherokee County Detention Center inmate, for example, is 60, according to Wood.

Inmates in this older age group have begun to get vaccinated in other facilities. Several incarcerated people have been vaccinated at the Mecklenburg County Detention Center in Charlotte, according to Sheriff Garry McFadden.

Local health departments get their doses from the state, which determines how many vaccines a county should get weekly based on population and how efficiently the local jurisdiction administered previously allotted doses.

“As with previous statewide group eligibility changes, some providers in some parts of the state may not be ready to move into Group 4 on March the 17th,” Cooper said.

Durham County Detention Center has not yet begun vaccinating eligible inmates, for example, though staff vaccinations are underway.

“Durham County Department of Public Health has not informed us when they, and Wellpath [our medical provider], will begin offering the vaccine to inmates,” said Sheriff Clarence F. Birkhead. “Sheriff’s Office staff vaccinations began in January 2021.”

Their jail is reliant on the county health department, Birkhead said — meaning it’s up to them to vaccinate inmates.

While there is one inmate over the age of 65, according to Birkhead, this individual was not scheduled to receive a vaccine until the rest of the people incarcerated in the jail became eligible in Group 4.

“According to Durham County Public Health, it is our understanding no inmate 65 years or older has been vaccinated,” said Birkhead. “This is because all those who are incarcerated fall under ‘Group 4,’ which will begin March 24, 2021.”

At this point, the county has vaccinated all jail detention staff who wish to receive the doses, according to Alicia Smith, Durham County Department of Public Health spokesperson.

“We are working closely with the jail medical staff to identify which detainees would like to receive a vaccination as part of NC DHHS prioritization Group 4,” she said.

And COVID-19 outbreaks, which spread rapidly in carceral facilities that make it difficult to socially distance, could further delay this process.

At least two of the eligible inmates at the Mecklenburg jail were not able to get vaccinated because they had an active coronavirus infection, according to McFadden.

But that’s not the full picture.

ICE Detainees

Some jails partner with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house migrants on behalf of the federal government.

The most notable of these is Alamance County Detention Center in Graham. Under Sheriff Terry Johnson’s leadership, the jail has entered into a $2.3 million agreement with ICE to temporarily hold immigrants before the federal agency can transfer them to a long-term detention facility outside the state. The facility also temporarily houses prisoners who have been convicted of a federal crime on behalf of the U.S. Marshals Service.

The partnership, instigated in 2019, has been renewed for 2021.

These stays are short – the Alamance jail cannot hold ICE detainees for longer than 72 hours under the contract.

But if the vaccine comes to the jail during this time period – the correctional health care provider Southern Health Partners will be vaccinating Alamance inmates – people in the custody of ICE won’t receive it without sign-off from the federal agency.

“For our ICE and Marshal detainees, it is up to their administration to give permission for them to be vaccinated,” said Michelle Mills, spokesperson from the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office. “That would be a decision on their end.”

Lindsay Williams, spokesperson for ICE, referred NC Health News back to the Alamance Sheriff’s Office for specific details on whether immigrants in their custody were receiving the vaccine.

The Department of Homeland Security, ICE’s parent agency, has not received any vaccine allocations itself, he said.

“At this time, a limited number of ICE detainees have begun to receive the COVID-19 vaccine based on availability and priorities for vaccinating individuals in the state where they are currently detained,” he said in an email. “Vaccines that detention facilities receive from their state may be administered by ICE Health Service Corps or contract facility medical staff or through other processes as defined by the state and/or local vaccination implementation plan.”

However, he noted that in most states, local health departments have not distributed any of their vaccines to ICE.

In contrast, federal prisoners in the custody of the U.S. Marshals at the Mecklenburg County jail are receiving the vaccine at the same time as pre-trial detainees, according to McFadden.

“The USMS is not administering the COVID-19 vaccine nor handling any aspect of the plan,” Lynzey Donahue, spokesperson for the U.S. Marshals Service, said in an emailed statement, noting vaccination of its prisoners would be handled by local jurisdictions.

State prisoners 

There’s a final group of incarcerated people in North Carolina jails – people who have been convicted of a crime and are awaiting transfer to the state prison system.

This is known as “jail backlog,” and it’s an issue that has become more complicated during the pandemic due to outbreaks in both county jails and state prisons.

Currently, 451 prisoners are on jail backlog, according to John Bull, spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety, which oversees state-run prisons.

While eligible prisoners inside the state prison system have begun to get vaccinated, those awaiting transfer from jails must rely on their individual facility’s rollout.

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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...