First it was a few dozen. Then close to 50. Now there are 75 active COVID-19 cases in the Forsyth County jail. Since November, a total of 237 individuals — 191 residents and 46 staff members — have tested positive for COVID-19 at the facility, according to a report released on Tuesday by the NC Health and Human Services Department.
The 75 active resident cases within the facility were posted on the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office’s Facebook page and account for 12.8 percent of the total resident population in the jail, which is currently 584.
“We continue to work diligently to curtail the spread of COVID-19 within the ever-changing resident population of our detention center,” read the sheriff’s office’s post.
On Jan. 15, the jail had reported having 87 positive cases and a cumulative total of 234 cases since November. Tuesday’s numbers reflect a decrease in the number of positive cases by eight individuals. And that is likely due to the constantly fluctuating nature of the number of individuals within the facility, according to the agency’s post.
“The numbers are forever changing,” Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough said in the Facebook post. “We are in the middle of a pandemic not only in Forsyth County but also worldwide. We are committed to the safety of the residents of the detention center.”
Spokesperson Christina Howell said all newly admitted residents are asked specific questions by the medical staff at the jail regarding possible exposure and symptoms of COVID-19 prior to entry to the facility. New residents are also held in intake housing for two weeks before they are moved to the general population, Howell said. Five days after they are confined, residents are tested for COVID-19 and those who exhibit symptoms or test positive for COVID-19 are immediately housed in two designated housing units.
The Forsyth County jail’s cumulative positive-case count is the second-highest in the state among county jails, just behind the Mecklenburg County Detention Center, which has had 278 cases and one death. So far, Forsyth County has not reported any deaths in its facility. The facility with the next highest case count is the Randolph County Detention Center, with 64 cumulative cases. In neighboring Guilford County, all was quiet until the sheriff’s office reported an outbreak early last week. On Jan. 12, the agency reported that 26 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 at the Greensboro Detention Center. However, in the state’s report on Tuesday, the number of cumulative positive cases for the Guilford County Jail was 27 — 23 residents and four staff members. The discrepancy in the data was not clarified by staff at the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office in time for publication. The number of current positive cases was also not reported by Guilford County and a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office said they would not be posting current case counts on their social media.
Like in Forsyth County, all new residents at the Guilford County jail are quarantined for 14 days prior to being placed in a housing unit, according to Jim Secor, a spokesperson for the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office. All inmate housing units are also sanitized twice a day and staff undergo temperature checks prior to entering the facility. All individuals are also required to wear masks when not in their rooms or offices.
“Prior to the outbreak last week, these protocols have proven very effective in keeping jail residents from exposure to the coronavirus,” Secor wrote in an email to TCB.
However, in Forsyth County, the same measures have not curbed the number of positive cases since the outbreak in November.
In a Facebook post from Jan. 15, Major Richard Carleton, the major of operations at the jail, said the agency anticipated an increase in positive tests after the holidays, a similar remark to one he made in mid-December after Thanksgiving, when the outbreak first happened.
“So, the spike you’re seeing, we’re seeing and nationally you’re seeing, we were warned about; we knew it was going to happen,” Carlton said.
Taking into account Forsyth County’s smaller population compared to Mecklenburg and Guilford County, activists have repeatedly criticized the county’s handling of the outbreak over the last couple of weeks.
“It’s not surprising that there is this giant outbreak because jails and prisons are not a safe place when there is a pandemic,” said Julie Brady, a member of the Forsyth County Community Bail Fund. “We’ve heard from people being released from the jail that the mask situation is not adequate and that before the outbreak, staff wasn’t wearing masks…. I think it comes down to the fact that jails and prisons are not good places to avoid catching a very contagious virus.”
Brady’s assertion that county jails as well as state and federal prisons act as breeding grounds for COVID-19 is backed by data being tracked by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism organization focused on criminal justice. According to the their data, the nationwide infection rate from COVID-19 in prisons far outpaced that of the general population by almost four times. In North Carolina, the rate among prisoners was found to be close to five times the rate of the general population in the state with a total of 8,132 positive cases and 39 inmate deaths. Among staff, there have been 2,900 cases and seven deaths statewide. In county jails, there have been 1,140 total positive cases in jails across the state and two deaths according to the NCDHHS report from Tuesday. Forsyth County’s positive cases make up 20.7 percent of the state’s total positive case count in local jails.
As far as vaccination goes, inmates aged 75 and up — approximately 165 prisoners — will be eligible for vaccines starting Wednesday according to a press release by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. Staff at correctional facilities are also being vaccinated. Then prisoners aged 65 to 74 will be vaccinated if doses are available followed by those aged 16 to 64 with serious medical conditions according to an article by North Carolina Health News.
In the meantime, to lower the numbers, Brady said that she’d like to see county district attorneys’ offices decrease bonds for individuals with noncriminal offenses and change secured bonds to unsecured bonds so individuals only have to pay if they don’t show up for their court date rather than paying to be released from jail. As someone who regularly monitors the jail roster, Brady said that she sees nonviolent offenders booked into the jail almost daily.
“Today, a 61-year-old man was arrested on a misdemeanor breaking and entering charge,” she said. “We have to ask ourselves, how safe are we from this person versus how safe is this person from the virus?”
Previously, Sheriff Bobby has said that he had been working with judges and the district attorney’s office to identify residents who could be released when the pandemic began in March. Brady said that it’s not enough because the district attorney’s office, headed by Jim O’Neill, is a conservative one that is “tough on crime.” Calls and messages to Jim O’Neill went unreturned for this story.
“The effect of that is to be tough on people who are in poverty,” Brady said. “I think it would be a simple task for Jim O’Neill to go through and lower bonds and do unsecured bonds. People shouldn’t have a potential death penalty for misdemeanor larceny. These are unprecedented times, and everyone has a story; everyone has the context of their own lives, and I think now is the time for compassion.”