Report: NC Flunks Handling of Coronavirus in State Prisons

Report: NC Flunks Handling of Coronavirus in State Prisons

North Carolina’s response to coronavirus in state prisons is on par with most states, but a June study shows widespread failure to address the issue.

North Carolina received an F+ on its “Report Card.”  NC gained points for testing commitments and providing staff masks. However, they lost points for not providing inmates with masks, among other things.

The state’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) says, “During this COVID-19 pandemic, the safety and health of employees, those incarcerated in state prisons and the general public remains a top priority.”

Widespread Testing

On June 18, Superior Court Judge Vince Rozier ordered the state to create a plan to test all state inmates. DPS tested around 29,000 inmates over six weeks and claims they covered all inmates during this time.

North Carolina received an F+ on its response to Coronavirus in state prisons.
Photo courtesy of Matthew Ansley on Unsplash

Test results indicate about 600 positive cases, which equals roughly 2% of inmates. However there were an additional 600 inmates who previously tested positive.  The round of mass testing cost over $3 million and the North Carolina National Guard worked with health staff to carry out the tests.

While this coverage was an encouraging step, almost half of North Carolina’s prison population is in local jails or federal prisons.  That means these numbers do not represent the entire incarcerated population in the state.

Early Release is Possible for Some

Most recently, North Carolina agreed to allow some to finish their sentence in “Extended Limits of Confinement.” It is not clear how many people this would release, and there are strict rules for who can receive it.  For now, the rule limits consideration to people not sentenced for a crime against a person.  Also, the person must fit into one of the groups on this list:

  • Pregnant
  • On home leave with a release date of 2020 or 2021
  • On work leave with a release date of 2020 or 2021
  • 65 or older with a release date between 2020-2022
  • Have an underlying health condition that increases risk from COVID-19 and a release date of 2020 or 2021

The CDC maintains the list of eligible conditions.

Wanda Bertram of Prison Policy Initiative says the best coronavirus response in state prisons is decreasing population density inside.  Bertram says, “Medical experts [say] that there is really no better way of slowing down the spread of this virus in prisons than by just getting people out” and “from a staff to inmate ratio perspective…most prisons in this country are overcrowded.”

Strategies for Risk Reduction

Prisoners are especially prone to coronavirus in state prisons.
Photo courtesy of Alfaz Sayed on Unsplash

Bertam says states should start with “low hanging fruit.” She means inmates categorized as “low-risk” and those at risk with health issues. Also, inmates at the end of their sentences, and those in for technical violations of parole.

She says, “While not more worthy of being considered for release than anybody else, they are easier to achieve from a political perspective.” North Carolina’s criteria for the Extended Limit of Confinement seem to follow this idea.

As of the end of August, the state considered almost 1,200 inmates for the Extended Limits of Confinement program. Approximately 450 inmates transferred into the program.  Of those 450, 24 violated their terms and returned to prison.

DPS also gave time credits to approximately 1,000 inmates with 2020 release dates. DPS claims that prison time has been cut for approximately 20,000 inmates recently. Overall, the number of inmates has decreased by approximately 4,000 since the pandemic began.

Issues with the Coronavirus Response in State Prisons

Despite these improvements, the picture of the coronavirus response in state prisons in North Carolina is bleak. Although the state has agreed to resume some limited education programs, it suspended many other programs. Visits, work release, volunteers, and all in-person classes have been suspended for months.

While these suspensions do make sense, they make life more difficult for inmates. Ethan Spears says that he saw numerous other issues while he was incarcerated during the pandemic. In addition to over-crowded sleeping areas, they ran out of hand sanitizer and even soap. Spears has since joined a lawsuit against the state.

Staff also face issues in state facilities. While DPS offers masks and pay raises for staff, their response still has problems. The state’s prison system has chronic staffing shortages, leaving prisons understaffed even before coronavirus hit. A 2019 report said there were times where prisons put one staff member in charge of over 100 inmates. A lack of staff can cause stress and danger, which leads to turnover. COVID-19 has made it even worse as staff become sick or decide the increased stress is not worth it.

COVID-19 Taking Its Toll on State Prisons

While the state has increased its capacity to produce masks, there still is no guarantee inmates will be provided with masks.

Photo courtesy of Hédi Benyounes on Unsplash

Bertram notes that masks are one of the best ways to make people and their families feel safe. She says, “Departments of corrections that are not even providing that to everyone are making a statement about how little worth they put on the faces of these people.”

Also, while North Carolina has now tested most of the state prison population, it might be too little, too late. Bertram says “A state that takes several months after the pandemic begins to even test….I don’t know who’s responsible for testing taking so long, but that’s just unacceptable at a time when prisons and jails represent the vast majority of major COVID clusters in this country.”

Just finding out who is positive is not a measure to improve public health. These numbers need to be shared in a way that gives information about how many people are at risk. This transparency will let the public use this data to act, to make prisons less dense or improve the conditions inside them.

North Carolina’s coronavirus response has been under the microscope following the return to online classes at both UNC and NC State after just a week of classes. Both the state and outside experts agree that there needs to be some serious changes to its coronavirus response in state prisons as well.

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