Experts warn that officials need to take urgent action to prevent prisons and jails from becoming ‘national reservoirs of COVID-19 infection.’

With the first “community spread” case of COVID-19 reported in North Carolina on Thursday, the state Department of Public Safety and some local sheriffs are taking measures to head off a potentially catastrophic explosion of new cases across the state’s vast network of detention facilities.

The Department of Public Safety, which oversees the state prison system, reported a raft of measures on Thursday, including screening vendors and contractors who do business with facilities, “aggressive cleaning efforts,” screening new prisoners and contractors, limiting transportation of prisoners and thoroughly cleaning buses after use, and waiving medical copays for prisoners reporting fevers and flu-like symptoms.

In Forsyth County, Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough said during a press conference on Tuesday that he was working with judges and the district attorney’s office to identify candidates for early release.

“If the courts are closed, right, that means no one is going to court,” he said. “But guess what? People are still committing crimes and people are still being arrested. Which means that people are coming in and no one’s going out. That creates not only a health issue; that creates a safety issue. And so many other issues spawn from the decisions that are being made.”

Kimbrough added that people would “be surprised” to know the number of people who were in the Forsyth County Law Enforcement Detention Center because of offenses like failure to pay child support.

Christina Howell, a spokesperson for the sheriff, said that the jail, which normally houses about 850 people, was down by about 30 people as of Thursday, compared to a week earlier. The average daily population for the jail in 2019 was 850. The reduction over the past seven days was accomplished by releasing some nonviolent offenders, Howell said, along with law enforcement officers making citations instead of arrests, family members posting bond and transfers to state facilities.

Kimbrough said he personally intervened on March 13 when a man was being booked in the jail for failure to appear. He said he picked up the phone, called the district attorney’s office and arranged to have the case continued so the man wouldn’t have to spend the night in jail.

Howell confirmed that as of later Thursday, no inmates or staff at the Forsyth County jail have tested positive for COVID-19.

The Guilford County Sheriff’s Office is similarly working with the district attorney’s office, district court and public defenders to release inmates with low bonds, the News & Record reported.

Nationally, experts are sounding increasingly dire warnings about the potential for an outbreak of COVID-19 in jails and prisons to exponentially worsen the pandemic.

“COVID-19 represents a grave and disproportionate threat to incarcerated people, and circulation of the virus in jails and prisons stands to drive the overall epidemic curve upward, especially for communities of color,” said Dr. Homer Venters, the president of Community Oriented Correctional Health Services and previously the chief medical officer for the New York City Jail system, on Wednesday. “Reducing the number of incarcerated people — particularly those with COVID-19 risk factors — is critical to enabling effective outbreak management behind bars and preventing jails and prisons from becoming national reservoirs of COVID-19 infection. Emergency actions taken by federal, state and local governments must contemplate how to reduce the number of people in detention as well as explicitly plan for hospital-level care for incarcerated patients who become ill, and the staffing resources to care for those who remain incarcerated.”

In New York City, an inmate and a corrections officer at Riker’s Island have reportedly tested positive for COVID-19, along with corrections employees in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia and Alabama.

Chantal Stevens, interim executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina, warned on Thursday that people confined to prisons and jails are “uniquely vulnerable,” adding that they “have no control over their own movement and are held in close quarters without adequate resources for hygiene, creating the perfect conditions for the dangerous spread of COVID-19.”

Dominique Goodmond, a Wake County resident who was formerly incarcerated at Perryville prison in Arizona, said minimum-security units in state prisons typically require hundreds of prisoners to share the same bathrooms, showers and washing machines.

“Every year, you know that the colds are going to hit,” Goodmond said. “You know it, and you have to prepare yourself. You buy this cough syrup that has no type of alcohol content, because they want to prohibit any type of addiction or anything, and you get Alka-Seltzers. And that’s how you’re able to combat whatever cold that’s gonna hit, because you know the minute somebody coughs that it’s going to spread around instantly.”

To date, no inmates or staff in North Carolina prisons have tested positive for COVID-19.

“We have test kits,” said John Bull, a spokesperson for the state Department of Public Safety. “Tests have been run. More [kits] are on order.

“We don’t have enough potentially,” he added. “We have enough for the time being. That’s why we have ordered more. We hope the supply chain is adequate to stock us as needed. It does not appear to be a critical issue at the moment for us.” 

The ACLU of North Carolina and a host of other groups issued letters on Thursday to the Public Safety Department and Gov. Roy Cooper, along with prosecutors and law enforcement, to take steps to reduce the number of people in prisons and jails.

The groups asked Cooper to use his authority “to extend the limits of confinement, commute sentences, grant medical release, and expedite release and parole to the elderly and chronically ill in our prisons.”

Bull said the Department of Public Safety has little to no leeway for granting early release to prisoners.

“I believe it would take legislation,” he said. “We don’t have much discretion to release prisoners before their release date. We don’t have the authority to overrule the courts.”

Goodmond said the frustration with limited test kits on the outside is only magnified in prisons and jails.

“If we’re being slow to test individuals in this quote-unquote free world, to assist them, to provide them with medical treatment that they need, what are we actually doing for the individuals that are incarcerated, closely confined, unable to be quarantined if something does happen?” she asked. “I think what they fail to realize is that people have release dates. The COVID virus is not stopping people from getting out of prison. So, you are about to start releasing people who have possibly been around this virus back into society, and nine times out of 10, they’re being released without any insurance.”

Asked if the state prison system has adequate space and resources to quarantine prisoners in the event of a significant outbreak, Bull said, “We believe so. Facilities are working on this on a constant basis to handle those who need to be in a separate population. There’s all sorts of contingency plans in the event that a person needs to be separated from the rest of the population. We believe we have sufficient space to meet the demand.”

The Forsyth County jail is minimizing the risk of interpersonal contact by having inmates take part in first-appearance hearings by video, Howell said. Outside contractors, like new arrestees and detention staff, are going a standard screening process, including having their temperature taken and monitoring for symptoms of respiratory illness. But Howell said that room inspections and body searches continue, as a matter of security.

Howell said the jail currently has 40 beds set aside in case they’re needed for quarantine.

The Guilford County Sheriff’s Office did not return multiple phone calls for this story.


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