The coalition is composed of the ACLU, Forward Justice, the North Carolina Justice Center, North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services and others. The letters asked public officials to consider a series of actions including releasing people from jail and prisons who are not a threat to public safety, reducing the number of people entering the system and protecting the health of people currently in the prisons.
Ivy Johnson, a staff attorney for the North Carolina Justice Center, said one of the arguments against releasing people from prison was that many of the most vulnerable people currently incarcerated in a state prison are serving long sentences and thus not good candidates for release.
“We sent DPS and district attorneys across the state a list of at least a few hundred people currently incarcerated who are over the age of 60 and set to be released within the next 12 months,” Johnson said. “Furthermore, while there are certainly people in the most at-risk population who are serving long sentences, many of these sentences are the result of the habitual felon laws and have nothing to do with the underlying offense, many of which are for low-level felonies.”
Visitation and volunteer visits were suspended at all prisons on March 16, although legal visitation and pastoral care visits were allowed to continue subject to medical screenings. John Bull, communications officer for the state prisons, said in lieu of visitation, offenders were allowed to make more phone calls than they would usually be allowed.
Johnson said the additional two free five-minute phone calls prisoners are now allowed to make is likely not enough to offset the detriment the lack of visitation will cause to their mental health. However, she did acknowledge that suspending visitations was necessary for the health and safety of people in prisons.
DPS has provided increased recreational opportunities wherever possible for all offenders, and said all facilities will have access to a movie subscription service.
Enhanced cleaning efforts, placing coronavirus prevention posters in all facilities, limiting offender transportation, isolating offenders who are showing symptoms and waiving medical copays for offenders with flu-like symptoms were among listed actions DPS took on March 19. However, the initial response did not include medical screenings for staff at all prisons in North Carolina.
“The medical screening of the staff entering the prisons is being done — including temperature checks — at three different prisons,” Bull said on Tuesday.
He said in addition to the temperature checks, the screenings included questions asking how the staff was feeling. Bull said the three prisons that were initially being screened were Central Prison, the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women and Maury Correctional Institution. These screenings were instructed to go systemwide by April 1.
“While we are glad to see DPS has been increasing its efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus by, among other things, instituting medical screenings of staff, these efforts are likely too little too late,” Johnson said.
She said the state’s prisons and jails are not equipped to handle an outbreak of COVID-19 for a number of different reasons. She said the prisons are severely understaffed, with high vacancy rates among doctors and nurses, and said there were more than 2,500 prisoners over the age of 60 in prisons across the state, which is the age group the U.S. Centers for Disease Control identifies as being high risk.
Additionally, Johnson said there is a shortage of personal protective equipment, and that Central Prison and North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women do not have ventilators, which may be required to treat COVID-19.
On top of all of this, Johnson said there are no state facilities available for incarcerated patients to go to who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19.
“The Division of Prisons is not underestimating the challenge it faces,” Bull said. “This virus is a difficult problem and we are evolving constantly to combat it. A significant number of actions have been taken and more will be taken in order to continue the effective prevention of the emergence of this virus to the general population. And steps to ensure if that happens, it does not spread to other prisons.”
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