Protesters drive past the Forsyth County jail to call on officials to release inmates amidst the coronavirus pandemic. (photo by Jerry Cooper)

“Where’s your mask?” Jan Pritchett, a defense attorney, asked Will Hill, a Guilford County prosecutor during a rare superior court session to hear bond motions.

“We’re the righteous, and we don’t need protection,” Hill quipped as the opposing attorneys made small talk during a break in the session presided by Superior Court Judge William Wood on Tuesday.

“What about them?” Pritchett continued, gesturing towards three stern-looking bailiffs outfitted in matching blue facemasks who had been escorting prisoners in handcuffs and jumpsuits in and out of a side door all morning.

“Because they’re in such close proximity with the un-righteous,” Hill said, “they need it.”

Weekly bond hearings were mandated through an administrative order in mid-March, carving out an exception to the order by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley through June 1, so that Guilford County can meet the constitutional requirement to preserve due process for criminal defendants.

Bond hearings could potentially play a role in relieving local jails, which have been recognized as high-risk settings for the spread of coronavirus as so-called “congregate settings,” where residents in confined spaces have little control over personal movement and maintaining social distance. Local officials in Guilford and Forsyth counties, from prosecutors to judges, have recognized the need to reduce their respective jail populations as the suspension of court operations slows defendants’ progress towards conviction or acquittal.

“The assistant district attorneys here in our office have worked very hard these past few weeks to help manage the incoming jail population, along with our partners in the criminal justice system, to try and keep nonviolent offenders from being introduced into the existing jail population,” Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill said in a statement provided to Triad City Beat. “The rationale for that is fairly obvious given our COVID-19 pandemic, and the risk of incarcerating an individual who might be carrying the virus and the threat that would pose to the entire jail staff as well as the entire jail population.”

And acknowledging the need to “minimize the number of defendants in our jails” for the purpose of preventing or limiting “exposure to COVID-19,” Guilford County District Attorney Avery Crump issued a memo on March 18 consenting to un-secure bonds set at $1,000 or less for misdemeanors. Crump’s order makes some exceptions, including domestic violence, assaults, driving while intoxicated, hit and run, stalking and communicating threats. An order to un-secure a bond essentially allows an inmate to walk out of jail on what amounts to a written promise to appear, only with financial liabilities if they fail to show up for their court date.

In both counties, court officials say they have been working collaboratively to get as many people out of jail as possible.

Senior Resident Superior Court Judge John O. Craig III said other officials in the Guilford County court system, including Crump, Public Defender John F. Nieman, Chief District Court Judge Teresa Vincent and Clerk of Court Lisa Johnson-Tonkins are conducting a monthly review of the jail roster and identifying candidates for release.

“The public defender is looking closely at lower-level felonies and working with the DA to get those people out of jail,” Craig said. He added, “I think we have been successful about getting as many people out as possible.”

O’Neill gave court officials in Forsyth County similarly high marks for their efforts.

“We are also reviewing the conditions on bond on a daily basis for unindicted inmates, and will be reviewing conditions of bond for indicted cases periodically with defense lawyers and presiding judges,” he said. “Our efforts have been nothing short of outstanding, and we have seen a decrease in the existing jail population.”

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The Forsyth County Law Enforcement Detention Center has shaved off 23.6 percent of its jail population, with 649 inmates as of Tuesday at 5 p.m., compared with an average daily population last year of about 850. Currently, Forsyth County’s jail population is more than twice the size of the Durham County Jail’s, even though Durham’s overall population is only 15 percent smaller than Forsyth’s. But the disparity between the counties’ jail populations predates the COVID-19 pandemic: In 2019, Durham’s jail population hovered around 400, and has been reduced by almost a third, to 274.

Compared to both Forsyth and Durham, Guilford County’s efforts to reduce its jail population in the face of the pandemic look flaccid. Compared to a daily average of 947 in 2019, the combined Greensboro and High Point jail populations stood at 845 on Tuesday evening — a 10.8 percent decrease. The trendlines in Guilford County, the state’s third largest, are almost identical to Wake County, which has seen a decrease from about 1,200 in 2019 to 1,069 as of Tuesday evening — 10.9 percent. But Chief District Court Judge Teresa Vincent pointed out that the combined jail population in Guilford stood at 1,017 on March 9 — significantly higher than the count from the previous year. By that benchmark, Guilford County has seen a 17 percent reduction in its jail population over the past 30 days.

Since the coronavirus pandemic upended life in the United States, health experts, criminal justice reformers, corrections officers and even detention officials have warned that prisons, jails and other carceral spaces are ripe for accelerating the spread of the virus.

Dr. Ross MacDonald, the chief medical officer for New York City’s jail system, warned judges and prosecutors in a March 18 tweet series: “A storm is coming, and I know what I’ll be doing when it claims my first patient. What will you be doing? What will you have done? We have told you who is at risk. Please let out as [many] as you possibly can.”

By then, one inmate and one correction officer had tested positive at the city’s massive Riker’s Island detention complex. As of Tuesday, the first inmate at Riker’s Island had died after contracting the virus, and 287 inmates along with 406 staffers in the city’s jail system had been reported as testing positive. MacDonald has described Riker’s Island as “a public health disaster unfolding before our eyes.”

A similar exponential spread has occurred in other carceral spaces in North Carolina, although no jails in the state to date have reported positive cases of COVID-19. On March 31, the Federal Correctional Complex at Butner reported the first two positive cases among federal prisoners in North Carolina. As of Tuesday, the News & Observer reported that the number of prisoners at Butner testing positive for COVID-19 had exploded to 60.

Within the North Carolina prison system, an inmate at Caledonia Correctional Complex reportedly exhibited symptoms on March 24 and went into quarantine, with a positive test result coming back on April 1. To date, the NC Department of Public Safety reports seven cases among prisoners at six facilities, also including Central Prison in Raleigh, Johnston Correctional Institution, Maury Correctional Institution, Eastern Correctional Institution and Neuse Correctional Institution, and has stopped admitting new prisoners.

Lori Poag, a spokesperson for the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office, said no inmates or staff at the Greensboro or High Point jails have tested positive for COVID-19, but she declined to say whether any have been tested or are in quarantine awaiting results.

“The confined quarters make that a really dangerous situation,” said Lauren Gebhard, a public defender in Guilford County. “As public defenders, our clients are older, homeless people. They have health issues, mental health issues. By definition, our clients are indigent. A lot of our clients fall in the high-risk category. They don’t have access to healthcare. All the illnesses they have aren’t being treated. A lot of them are being picked up on trespasses and crimes related to being homeless. A lot of them are elders. That places them not only at high risk of getting Covid, but the ramifications are much more serious.”

Some people who work in detention settings are also speaking out about the risk they face just by showing up to do their jobs.

“We’ve already had one of our corrections officers pass away from this illness,” said Byron Osborn, executive board president of the Michigan Corrections Organization during a press call last week. “We’ve had several hospitalizations as we speak. It’s such an impactful crisis situation. And it’s just in the prison setting extremely difficult to control, as everybody knows, just because of the inherent nature of correctional facilities, with the spacing issues.”

Community members in Greensboro and Winston-Salem are demanding that the local jails drastically reduce their populations.

On Monday, the Coalition for a Just Virus Response, which includes members of Democratic Socialists of America, Greensboro Revolutionary Socialists and the Triad Socialist Rifle Association, issued a set of 15 demands to local leaders, leading with calls to “expand emergency housing” and to “end low-level arrests by the police and release prisoners in county jail.”

Similarly, members of Housing Justice Now held a “car protest” by honking and driving past City Hall and the Forsyth County jail on Tuesday evening to demand hotels for people experiencing homelessness and “the release of inmates” from the jail.

“They’re still arresting people every day,” said Julie Brady, a Wake Forest law student who took part in the protest. “They say they’re not arresting people for misdemeanors. But they are. Every new person they arrest increases the risk of introducing the virus to the jail. They’re in such close quarters in the jail. There’s no way to maintain social distancing…. Once the virus is in there, it’s going to be like a flashover. Everyone’s going to get it. It’s going to be a huge toll on the hospital system.”

Representatives of the Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point police departments all say officers are encouraged to issue citations for nonviolent misdemeanors as an alternative to custodial arrests, both to protect officers from exposure to the virus and to minimize the jail population.

But new arrivals in the Guilford and Forsyth jail systems every day show that about a third are still nonviolent misdemeanors. On Sunday, in Guilford County, one person was arrested for failure to appear on a misdemeanor and marijuana possession, another for failure to appear two times or more in a different county, and still another for fleeing an accident. Those arrests compared to more serious offenses like habitual driving while intoxicated, assault on a female (two cases), and felony probation violation.

In Forsyth County, on the same day, one person was arrested for speeding to elude arrest and no driver’s license, another for drug paraphernalia and second-degree trespassing, and still another for a probation violation. Ten other arrests were for more serious offenses, ranging from assault on a female to heroin possession. TCB cross-referenced jail rosters and court records available through the nccourts.org website to eliminate the possibility that an inmate being held on a relatively minor charge might have more serious charges pending in other jurisdictions across the state.

Judge Teresa Vincent, the chief district court judge in Guilford County, said those numbers are comparatively low.

“Our first-appearance calendars are a lot lower than they normally are,” she said. A review of the rosters in Guilford and Forsyth counties shows that a handful of arrestees are churning through the system each day by getting booked in jail only to be released a day or so later.

Lori Poag, the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, said the jails in Greensboro and High Point have separate holding areas for new arrestees to minimize interaction with longer-term population.

***

“Overall, people are staying indoors and not getting into mischief,” Judge John O. Craig III, the senior resident superior court judge for Guilford County, said in an interview with TCB. “If they do commit a crime, and it is serious enough that they would be given a relatively high bond, they’re going to be placed in an environment that could be dangerous for them if there was an outbreak of COVID-19. That should be an incentive to not commit crime. They’re going to be placed in any environment they don’t have any control over.”

But many of the 845-some inmates at the jails in Greensboro and High Point got in trouble before the pandemic.

“I was looking at the jail roster last night, and there was a handful [of cases that] I couldn’t understand why they were there,” said defense attorney Daniel Harris during a break in Judge Wood’s superior court session in Guilford County court on Tuesday. “I’ve filed bond motions, and gotten about five out.”

An incomplete review of the roster by TCB flagged eight inmates held on non-violent misdemeanors. Joshua Spry, a 40-year-old who was arrested on March 20 and held on a $1,000 bond for misdemeanor larceny, would seem to be a prime candidate for District Attorney Crump’s March 18 memo consenting to automatically un-secure bonds set at $1,000 or less.

Another five inmates flagged by the TCB review are being held on nonviolent drug offenses, including felony heroin possession and obtaining controlled substances by fraud or forgery. One is awaiting trial for nonpayment of child support on a $10,000 bond. At least seven are awaiting trial on DWI charges.

And TCB flagged a dozen inmates who are serving sentences in jail for DWIs, failure to appear, probation violations, injury to personal property and other offenses. According to the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office’s “inmate inquiry” website, one of them should have already completed his sentence. The site lists the estimated release date for Raheem Javar Murphy, 22, as April 1.

While the weekly hearings to consider bond motions in Guilford County superior court provide an opportunity to thin out the number of low-level felony offenders in the jails, in practice the numbers aren’t likely to dramatically bend the curve. Of the roughly dozen cases heard on Tuesday over the course of four hours, in only two did Judge Wood grant motions to un-secure a bond, allowing the defendants to walk free.

Judge Wood agreed to un-secure a $50,000 bond for a 34-year old woman with a pending charge of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury who is accused of cutting her partner in the shoulder in the knife. Her lawyer pointed out that the victim had been charged with assaulting the defendant in the past, adding, “This may well end up being a self-defense case.” The prosecutor acknowledged that the victim told him that “he didn’t want her around him, but he was not afraid of her.”

The judge also agreed to un-secure a $3,500 bond for a 40-year-old woman who is charged with robbery with a firearm or other dangerous weapon.

“Her bond may as well be $10,000, for all her ability to pay,” her lawyer said. “Most of her adult life, she was married. Sometime in the past couple years, she entered into an abusive relationship. She lost her apartment and has been trying to get on her feet, which means standing on the corner and trying to flag down cars.”

The state alleges that the woman was with a man who smacked another man over the head with a bottle, and the woman took the defendant’s duffle bag. But her lawyer said she wasn’t there, and “has no idea what this is about.”

The final case before Judge Wood broke for lunch involved two 43-year-old twin brothers who have been in jail for the past 15 months on a raft of charges for obtaining property by false pretense. They entered the courtroom in jumpsuits and handcuffs that were linked together. Both with shaggy beards, one looked more alert and wore a short, choppy haircut, while the other slouched forward at the defense table while his hair fell in his eyes.

The brothers wound up in jail after getting caught returning chicken to Food Lion that they allegedly injected with rotten liquid to get $20 as a double-money-back refund. They are both being held on $60,000 bonds.

They were in court to make a plea, but the brother with long hair balked at the last minute.

“I don’t know if I’m ready to make that decision today, to be honest with you,” he said. He added, “It’s been a nightmare in general.”

The brother with the short, choppy hair said he was ready to plea but he wouldn’t do it without his brother.

With the deal now off the table, the brothers’ lawyers made a motion to unsecure their bonds.

Jan Pritchett, representing the brother with long hair, argued that they had already spent more time in jail than they would have served had they been convicted of the crimes for which they were charged.

The prosecutor countered that both men were “an extreme flight risk,” adding that one of them has warrants from Delaware and is wanted for assaulting a law enforcement officer. The prosecutor said a Food Lion investigator believes the men perpetrated the scheme “up and down the East Coast” and defrauded the grocery chain of more than $7,000. Pritchett riposted that Food Lion doesn’t even have stores in some of states where the brothers were alleged to have been, and said the only evidence in the case was surveillance video from one store in Guilford County.

Judge Woods ordered the brothers’ bonds reduced from $60,000 to $20,000.

A bailiff reached a hand under the long-haired brother’s armpit and helped the frail man to his feet. Then the brothers, still yoked together, shuffled out the side door, headed for the lockup one block away.

UPDATE, April 8, 3:46 p.m.: Lori Poag, a spokesperson for the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office, said an inmate reported symptoms of COVID-19 on April 4, but since then the sheriff’s office has confirmed that they have not contracted the virus.

This story was updated at 2:41 p.m. on April 8 to reflect the updated number of North Carolina prisons where positive cases of COVID-19 have been reported.

A person raises their fist to call for the release of Forsyth County jail inmates during a drive-by protest outside the Hall of Justice in Winston-Salem. (photo by Jerry Cooper)

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