Out of 568 people housed at the Forsyth County jail, 68, or 12 percent, have tested positive for COVID-19, following a mass testing conducted last week, the sheriff’s office said in a press release issued this afternoon.
The press release came less than an hour after a press conference in which jail staff received pushback from reporters on their assertion that only 12 percent of those housed at the facility tested positive. At the time, Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough informed reporters that 68 people had tested positive and 64 had tested negative, with the remainder awaiting results. Based on the available numbers at the time, reporters suggested the positive rate would be closer to 50 percent.
The report that the number of positive cases remained at 68 even after the remaining tests came back was unexpected: Kimbrough had predicted during the press conference he was confident that the number of positive cases would “increase once all the numbers come back.”
Three of the 68 residents who tested positive were already infected when they came into the jail, said B. Williams, the director of nursing. Williams said none of the residents who have tested positive have been hospitalized.
The jail also tested 210 staff members on Dec. 17-19, with zero coming back positive, said Capt. Charlene Warren, the commander of operations. Eleven staff members have previously tested positive. Residents at the jail were tested on Dec. 15 and Dec. 16.
The Forsyth County Community Bail Fund, which advocates for emptying the jail, issued a lacerating statement in response to the outbreak on Dec. 18.
“After ignoring calls by local groups to drastically reduce the jail population and to stop arrests of certain charges in order to prevent the introduction and spread of COVID-19 within the detention center’s walls, Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough and District Attorney Jim O’Neill are now faced with the predicted outcome: COVID is rapidly spreading through the detention center,” the group said in its statement.
Rich Carlton, the major of operations at the jail, attributed the outbreak to people getting together for the Thanksgiving holiday. Prior to Thanksgiving, he said four people coming into the jail had tested positive for COVID.
“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. “It was after the Thanksgiving weekend when people got together with their families, didn’t social distance or whatever. So, the spike has been recent.”
Kimbrough told reporters that he worked with judges and the district attorney’s office to identify residents who could be released when the pandemic began in March so that the jail population could be reduced and the spread could be contained. Kimbrough said the jail population count on Monday — around 575 — compares to roughly 800 residents this time one year ago.
“What we have done since March is we have gotten the district attorney, the judges, as well as our population specialists — we have went through the Forsyth County Detention Center since March and identified persons who have low bond or low risk factors, non-violent, and have assisted them in getting back home,” Kimbrough said.
Judy Brady with the Forsyth County Community Bail Fund told Triad City Beat on Monday that Kimbrough’s statement that officials have released individuals with low bonds does not comport at all with her observations. Brady’s organization bailed out nine people on Saturday, and another six today, and she said the lowest bond was $100.
“I believe he might have done that half-assedly in March,” she said. “They did get the population down from about 800 to 600, but since then it’s been bouncing between 590 and 630.”
While the Forsyth County Community Bail Fund advocates for releasing everyone from jail, the organization highlighted segments of the population that should be prioritized for release, starting with pre-trial detainees, people serving sentences of one year or less, and those convicted of misdemeanors and Class H felonies.
“They’re arresting people for probation violations and failure to appear,” Brady said. “I would guess that dozens of people, maybe hundreds just under that would be able to be released. There was a guy who was arrested today that was arrested on felony larceny, possession of marijuana and second-degree trespass, and that to me is not worth taking someone to jail during a COVID pandemic. All they have to do is not process them in. Why don’t they say, ‘Sign here. It’s a written promise to appear.’ They’re exposing this guy to a deadly virus because he can’t afford to pay a $500 bond.”
Sheriff resists calls to halt evictions
Kimbrough also took the opportunity during the press conference to address a rising chorus of calls on his agency to halt evictions during the pandemic. The sheriff reiterated his previous position that once a magistrate has issued a writ of possession, he is legally obligated to enforce it.
“The sheriff’s office has no authority to supersede a judge,” Kimbrough said. “I don’t have that authority. Once the order has been signed and decreed, we have no choice but to execute it.”
In contrast to the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, the sheriff in neighboring Guilford County is not executing evictions if the tenant presents a declaration on a form issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The declaration allows tenants to attest that they cannot afford to make rent payments because of a substantial loss of income and are facing the prospect of becoming homeless. Jim Secor, the attorney for the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office, told TCB on Monday that his agency is acting under the authority of the CDC order in suspending evictions. The CDC order, which was issued in September, is set to expire on Dec. 31, but COVID relief legislation under consideration by Congress would reportedly extend the moratorium through Jan. 31.
Sheriff Kimbrough argued during today’s press conference that it’s not up to him whether to honor a tenant’s declaration that they are unable to afford rent payments under the CDC eviction moratorium.
“The judicial official makes the deciding decision as to whether or not it will be issued,” Kimbrough said. “So, when our guys go out there, they don’t go out there when somebody possessing a CDC guidelines or something like that — all that happens before they get the writ,” he said. “When we get the writ, all that has taken place. So, it’s not like I show up at someone’s house and they say, ‘I have this. Go away.’ That takes place before the sheriff gets there to execute the writ.”
Lonnie Albright, the assistant county attorney who serves the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, backed Kimbrough’s interpretation.
“My advice to my client, the sheriff of Forsyth County, is you get a writ, you serve it,” Albright said.
Kimbrough told reporters he is not indifferent to the plight of tenants facing homelessness during the pandemic because they can’t afford to make rent payments.
“Not only do I have sympathy; I have empathy,” he said. “But at the same time, I have to follow the law. I have to do what is legal. My opinion does not matter when it comes to the law…. My opinion sometimes totally disagrees with what the law says. But as a sworn law enforcement official, I’m obligated to the people to follow the law and the letter of it.”
Asked why Kimbrough is insisting he’s bound by law to execute evictions while his counterpart in Guilford County is acting under the authority of the CDC order to do the opposite, spokesperson Christina Howell said, “Both entities are following the advice of their respective county attorneys.”
Asked whether Sheriff Kimbrough has a duty as a law enforcement officer to ensure that the CDC order is enforced, Howell said, “The sheriff would not investigate whether or not the judicial official acted appropriately. If an individual felt their moratorium declaration was not handled appropriately, they would need to seek out an attorney.”
Housing Justice Now, a Winston-Salem organization that advocates for tenants and helps them fight evictions, said magistrates and landlords routinely disregard the CDC moratorium.
“Tenants we have worked with fit every requirement of the moratorium, and yet because of unsympathetic magistrates or landlords skirting the moratorium they have been ruled against regardless,” the group said in a statement on Monday, countering any notion that the writs executed by Forsyth County deputies only apply to tenants who are not covered by the CDC moratorium.
The Housing Justice Now statement said that if Kimbrough believes evictions are wrong, he should act on his convictions.
“His sympathy and empathy are more than useless if his actions are to lock out families in the midst of a deadly, quickly worsening pandemic,” the group said. “We encourage Sheriff Kimbrough to use the cover provided by the CDC moratorium… to do what he claims to think is right — keep people safe in their homes.”
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