By Elizabeth Thompson

As a COVID-19 outbreak started to spread at New Hanover Correctional Center at the beginning of November, Jada was scared.

Her boyfriend is incarcerated at New Hanover Correctional Center, and she requested North Carolina Health News use a pseudonym out of fear of retaliation by the prison system.

Jada’s boyfriend had worked his way up the prison system to get to the camp, where he is part of the prison system’s work release program, Jada said. People in work release programs go out to the world to work and then return to a prison in between shifts.

As the COVID-19 outbreak began to spread at the camp, she said he and others at the camp felt so unsafe, they wished they were back at a higher security facility with less freedom. At least they would be isolated from the outside world, in a facility with more structure.

Despite being at the end of their sentences, incarcerated people at work release camps have to deal with intersecting risks, such as repeatedly going to the outside world where COVID-19 is running rampant. Exposure could be deadly because it means bringing the disease back to the camp, where it could potentially spread and sicken others.

In a world where many businesses still haven’t gone back to in-person work, prisoners in work release settings who live in communal living spaces, on top of each other on bunk beds, continue to go out of their facilities and into the workplace. They have all the negatives of being in prison, layered on top of all the negatives of working in a world plagued by a potentially deadly respiratory disease.

Throughout the pandemic, COVID-19 has ravaged carceral settings. Close quarters prison and jail housing allow for easier disease spread, and many incarcerated people have pre-existing medical conditions. Advocates have called for incarcerated people to be released early from prison, arguing that officials should reduce the prison population to better enable social distancing.

In North Carolina, a landmark case, NAACP v. Cooper, provided for the early release of at least 3,500 people incarcerated in the state.

The North Carolina prison system’s work release program is meant to be a transitional program for “soon-to-be-released” people incarcerated in North Carolina’s prisons, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. Participants in the program “must be in the final stage of imprisonment and are carefully screened for participation by prison managers,” the DPS website states.

Close quarters, viral spread

Since the beginning of the pandemic, DPS has reported that 55 incarcerated people have died from COVID-19. Incarcerated people throughout the country have a COVID-19 case rate four times higher than the general population, and a death rate twice as high as the general population.

Why COVID-19 is more likely to spread and be deadly in carceral settings is a multifold issue, said Eric Reinhart, a resident physician at Northwestern University.

Incarceration in the United States is almost always characterized by dense housing in facilities with poor ventilation, lighting and health care, Reinhart said.

“When you’re talking about a respiratory virus that’s highly transmissible and can produce very severe outcomes, the health status of the population at which it’s spreading is very important,” Reinhart said. He talked about how many of the incarcerated people have a lower baseline health status, partly due to poor health conditions inside the prison, such as overcrowding and poor health care.

Incarcerated people have higher rates of diseases such as diabetes or hepatitis C, and they are also more likely to suffer from mental health issues.

 “The virus spreads potentially more rapidly because viral loads will be higher and people who don’t have strong immune responses or have strong immune responses to fight it off,” he said. 

Introducing any form of transportation, such as transfers in between prisons or transport via bus to a work release program just increases the chance of getting sick, Reinhart said

A study done by researchers at UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University found that there were, “significant associations between weekly transfers and positive COVID-19 cases.”

“The major risk here is just the introduction of more possible scenarios by which the virus will enter these close spaces,” Reinhart said.

The outbreak at New Hanover CC

The outbreak at New Hanover CC has ended, according to the DPS dashboard on COVID-19 cases in the prisons. At the peak of the outbreak on Nov. 12, the prison reported that 27 people were sick with the coronavirus in a facility that can house about 400 men

About 70 percent of people incarcerated in North Carolina’s prison system are vaccinated, according to vaccine data on DPS’s website.

The prison’s COVID-19 dashboard is the best metric to understand what is going on from the outside, but people incarcerated in the state prisons have previously questioned whether the prisons are testing everyone they should, North Carolina Health News previously reported. 

When asked about the protocol for incarcerated people in the work release program who have been exposed to COVID-19, DPS spokesman John Bull said people who are potentially exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID are quarantined for 14 days.

As for transportation to and from the prison facilities, transfers are conducted with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Bull said.

People incarcerated at New Hanover CC, including Jada’s boyfriend and another man incarcerated there, Michael Ward, described leadership’s delayed action in quarantining people who came into contact with others who had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Ward described in a letter that his bunkmate was sick for a week before he was finally tested for COVID. Three other people later that day tested positive.

The following day, people went to their work release jobs, as usual.

Paying the prisons

Even if there is a COVID-19 outbreak in a facility, prisons cannot suspend court-ordered restitutions, fines and family support, Bull said.

“If offenders weren’t transported to work release due to the temporary suspension of work release, they should not have been charged for those transportation costs,” he added. 

Jada’s boyfriend called the prison a “modern-day sweatshop.”

“This facility stands to loose (sic) its contracts if they can not produce workers,” he wrote in a letter, adding that he is charged $600 a month in fees “just to have a job.”

Incarcerated people who participate in the work release are charged $20 per day for the privilege of working outside the prison walls, Bull said. These per diem costs are capped at $100 per week. People who are not on work release are not required to pay court-order restitution, fines and family support, but those incarcerated people who are working will have all fines deducted from their paychecks.

Bull said people who participate in the work release program are paid “the prevailing wage,” but he did not state a specific amount. The DPS website states that incarcerated people in work release programs “must earn at least the minimum wage,” of $7.25 an hour, or $58 for an eight hour day. 

Calls for decarceration

People in work release programs are deemed by the prison system to be safe enough to work in society, but they are still incarcerated.

Some advocates question why they are incarcerated at all during a public health crisis.

“We’ve spent the entire pandemic arguing that prison systems should be releasing more people and that they have every tool at their disposal to do so,” said Wanda Bertram, communications strategist for the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit that researches the harms of mass criminalization. “But it seems like rather than release people, these prison systems just want to put people on work release.”

The number of people released from North Carolina’s state prisons has actually decreased since 2019, a report by the Prison Policy Initiative found, even though the state was court ordered to send people imprisoned home during the pandemic.

Another study by the Prison Policy Initiative found that increases in COVID-19 cases in prisons and jails led to more COVID cases in the areas that surrounded them.

“Is the incarceration serving public safety?” Reinhart asked. “If so, why are they free to work?”

As the state braces itself for the potential of increased caseloads due to the Omicron variant, the threat of more outbreaks is very real. And that has some incarcerated people frightened.

“New Hanover Correctional is a minimum custody facility,” Ward wrote in his letter. “No one here has a death sentence — but COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate.”

This story was updated to include the latest vaccination data from North Carolina’s prison system.

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Elizabeth Thompson is our Report for America corps member who covers gender health and prison health topics. Thompson is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate who has covered Texas politics for The Dallas Morning...