RALEIGH, NC (WWAY) — COVID-19 is posing safety concerns in the NC prison system.
North Carolina Department of Public Safety officials say at least 500 inmates across the state’s prisons will be considered for early release, based on certain criteria.
More than 35 offenders among six separate facilities have tested positive for COVID-19 so far. Twenty staff at 10 facilities have also self-reported positive test results for COVID-19.
Four inmates have died from coronavirus-related illnesses at the federal prison in Butner.
Adult Correction is reviewing additional offenders for possible transition to the community to complete their sentence under supervision. All offenders under consideration must meet strict criteria and all legal requirements, such as victim notification in certain cases, before a transfer to the community is approved. The approximately 500 offenders being considered cannot have been convicted of a violent crime against a person and must fall within one of the following categories:
- Pregnant offenders
- Offenders age 65 and older with underlying health conditions
- Female offenders age 50 and older with health conditions and a release date in 2020
- Offenders age 65 and older with a release date in 2020
- Offenders already on home leave with a release date in 2020
- Offenders on work release with a release date in 2020
District Attorney Ben David says the decision is a necessary step as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
“Much like a cruise ship where there’s nowhere to go, we can see how quickly a virus can spread in confined spaces,” he says. “And releasing the pressure valve even a little bit can really help.”
David says releasing those who are at highest risk for coronavirus complications will be helpful to understaffed prison hospitals.
“Even reducing the prison population by three percent, which is essentially what this is, would have profound impacts on the number of bed spaces available in infirmaries,” David says.
On Thursday, April 9, six offenders were transferred into the community. All of those six are females and are either pregnant or are 65 or older, and thus in a high-risk category as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In a separate effort to reduce the number of incarcerated persons in its facilities, the department has been awarding time credits, where appropriate and in accordance with its statutory authority. This allows some offenders to reduce their maximum sentence and be released to community upon completion of the minimum sentence.
In March alone, more than 300 offenders originally scheduled for release in April, May or June, were transitioned to post-release supervision by completing their minimum sentence. Through this process, many individuals who were scheduled for release this spring or early summer have already been discharged or are on an expedited schedule for transition in the next few weeks.
David says county jails are taking similar measures to release non-violent offenders.
“We are about 100 inmates fewer than we were this time last month in New Hanover County. We’re also 30 percent fewer inmates at the Pender County Jail last month,” he says.
David was unsure if inmates will be tested for COVID-19 prior to their release.
A total of 2,200 offenders were released in March. In fact, since January of this year, over 6,900 individuals have been released from a DPS facility. This is an increase of 10% over the same period in 2019. In addition to the actions of DPS, the North Carolina Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission, is also reviewing offenders under its authority for possible release. For example, over the past week, the commission has released more than a dozen pregnant females to community supervision.
“We do not take these new measures lightly. Our staff are working in accordance with CDC guidelines, while being mindful of adult risk management, as well as reentry best practices in order to identify and transition adult offenders into our communities in a safe and efficient manner,” said Tim Moose, Chief Deputy Secretary of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice.