PW special report: COVID-19 pandemic poses dire threat to NC prisons and jails

PW special report: COVID-19 pandemic poses dire threat to NC prisons and jails

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[Editor’s note: This is the first of a special, three-part series examining the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to jails, prisons and other detention facilities. The reports will highlight stories about incarcerated individuals, staff members who are charged with caring for them and the Cooper administration’s response to calls for change before a potential outbreak.]

Criminal justice advocates and family members of incarcerated individuals have been warning state and county officials for weeks about the potential for COVID-19 to ravage the populations of jails, prisons and other detention facilities. Their pleas, however, have mostly been ignored. 

Citing the public health and safety of North Carolinians, Gov. Roy Cooper has closed schools, expanded unemployment benefits and ordered residents to stay at home. His administration, though, has been silent on issues facing some of the most vulnerable individuals in the state: incarcerated people and detention facility staff. 

Cooper himself has acknowledged concerns facing these people, but his office has yet to order any formal changes or reviews to thwart an outbreak, despite staffing shortages and the inability of inmates to practice social distancing and other protective sanitation measures.

Several jurisdictions have implemented patchwork measures. Some district attorneys are reviewing inmates for early release; some judges are enforcing orders to reduce the number of people in jails. And some county jails are implementing new procedures and protocols to reduce COVID-19 exposure. 

It’s not enough, however, according to advocates, academics and family members, who fear a grave emergency is on the immediate horizon.  

Nikki Fowler’s husband has 15 days left to serve at the Burke Confinement in Response to Violation (CRV) Center in Morganton after allegedly violating his probation. She’s scared he’ll fall ill before she can see him again. 

CRV centers incarcerate individuals for 90-day periods in response to alleged violations of probation, parole or post-release supervision as provided by the Justice Reinvestment Act of 2011. The facilities provide minimum-security, dormitory-style housing and offer intensive programming designed to modify behavior. 

Fowler said her husband sleeps in a bunk bed in a large room with rows of other incarcerated men. Social distancing is not an option for them; if someone gets sick, there’s nowhere to isolate them. 

“All it takes is just one person to be in that dorm with coronavirus and then they’re all going to have it, because they’re so closely confined,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s really frustrating and it’s upsetting, because he could be home and be under house arrest for the last two weeks and he wouldn’t be exposed to anything. It’s almost like it’s not humane.”

‘Ripe for an outbreak’

The Burke CRV Center has 248 beds. Fowler said her husband described conditions at the center to her: Inmates aren’t allowed to have hand sanitizer because of the alcohol content (the prohibition is in effect all state corrections facilities), and they can’t frequently wash their hands.

The CRV center in Burke County (Photo: NCDPS.gov)

They used to have rehabilitative classes or programming several times each day, but it’s been reduced to once per day, and there are more than ten people in a class at a time, Fowler said. Most of the time, the men can’t go outside. 

Fowler said her husband told her that the best advice he and his fellow inmates have received to help prevent catching COVID-19 was to “flip flop” in their beds, so the person on the top bunk has their head facing the opposite direction of the person in the bottom bunk. 

“They’re not even six feet apart in the beds. Even if they flip or flop, how will they avoid a sneeze or a cough?” Fowler asked. “If [the virus] can populate quickly out here at Walmart, it can definitely populate quickly in a dorm-like place.”

She’s contacted her husband’s probation officer and other corrections officials to try to find out if he can be released early. She’s written the North Carolina Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission about the situation, but said she’s received no clear answers for family members about their loved ones and COVID-19 prevention. 

“Since he’s so close to being released, I just want them to let him go and be safe,” she said. “And I’m not asking for a special exception for my husband, but for anyone who has a certain amount of time left who is nonviolent. In a normal situation, without a pandemic, this wouldn’t be a concern.”

Brian Elderbroom

Brian Elderbroom, a national criminal justice expert, visited the Burke CRV Center in the past year and said in an email that he could attest to Fowler’s description of confinement there and the impossibility of social distancing. 

“This facility is ripe for an outbreak,” he said. 

Elderbroom is the founder and president of Justice Reform Strategies, a consulting firm providing policy, communications and management support to organizations committed to improving the criminal-legal system and reducing incarceration and correctional control.

He said a person on felony probation can receive a CRV disposition for an alleged crime or technical violation of supervision conditions, like failing to report to a probation officer or failing a drug test. Individuals who receive a CRV disposition are incarcerated for 90 days at either the Burke County or Robeson County CRV centers (Robeson is temporarily closed due to staffing shortages) or in state prison. 

Avoiding a crisis

CRV sentences, Elderbroom said, are imposed by a judge at the recommendation of probation officials or the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS) and are not legally required.

Elderbroom and James Markham, a distinguished professor of public policy at the UNC School of Government, spoke about the many ways a CRV sentence could be reduced or changed as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Markham said in an email that to the extent that CRV is a part of a person’s probation, a judge could modify the terms at any time. The governor could also commute the sentence or offer other clemency. The Secretary of Public Safety could also change the place of confinement for the CRV or extend the limits of confinement.

Markham wrote a blog post last year about his visit to the Burke CRV center. He remarked that both Burke and the now-closed Robeson Center, which he also visited, had tighter living spaces than some prisons and noted that substance abuse treatment centers at DART Cherry and Black Mountain also have bunk-style dormitories with probation conditions that a judge could modify.

Elderbroom said that in addition to Markham’s recommendations on how to modify CRV sentences that already have been imposed, there are easy actions decision-makers can take to eliminate new admissions to the CRV center.

“DPS should be using its delegated authority to impose community-based sanctions in lieu of recommending CRV’s, and judges should continue probation or modify the terms rather than impose a CRV term,” he said.

He added that a crisis can be avoided if DPS and judges follow advice from national experts who have called for a suspension of technical violations and incarceration for supervision violations. He pointed to a statement from 50 current and former probation and parole executives, as well as the National Association of Probation Executives.

“People under correctional control are especially medically vulnerable,” the document states. “They disproportionately suffer from heart conditions, tuberculosis, HIV and diabetes, among other medical vulnerabilities. Further, outbreaks of contagious diseases in correctional facilities could lead to the infection of staff, incarcerated people and family members and could negatively impact staffing patterns, rendering such facilities more difficult to operate in a safe and healthy manner.

Since approximately 11 million people churn through prisons and jails every year, if infectious diseases are spread inside correctional facilities, they have an elevated potential to affect community health. Finally, the millions of people visiting probation and parole offices are similarly medically vulnerable, putting our staff and one another at heightened risk of becoming infected.”

The statement recommended including limiting in-person probation and parole visits, reducing intake onto probation and parole to only those who absolutely need to be under supervision and reducing terms to only as long as necessary to achieve the goals of supervision. 

Not fully prepared

Heather Clements’s husband is also incarcerated in tight quarters. He has 18 months left of a sentence he’s serving at Avery-Mitchell Correctional Institution and similarly sleeps in a dormitory-style unit. 

Clements, who lives in Carteret County, said she has contacted many officials to ask for her husband’s early release. He has underlying medical conditions, she said, that would exacerbate COVID-19 were he to contract it. 

“I know everybody there is freaking out; they’re nervous,” she said in a phone interview this week. 

Her husband told her that inmates at the facility continue to eat in close quarters in the cafeteria and they are spending a lot more time waiting in lines to make phone calls to loved ones. The guards there, she said, recently started wearing masks. 

“I don’t think people realize just how dangerous it is with people coming in and out every day,” Clements said.

As of Tuesday afternoon, DPS does not have any reported cases of COVID-19 among those incarcerated or the staff working in corrections facilities, according to spokesman John Bull.

North Carolina Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee

North Carolina Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee told members of the legislature this afternoon that DPS is monitoring numerous incarcerated people with flu-like symptoms for COVID-19. They’ve been issuing tests for about a month, approaching 100, and they are awaiting results on several pending tests, which take days to get, he said.

It was also noted in the meeting that several adult corrections and juvenile justice staff across the board have tested positive for the virus. It is, he said, the responsibility of staff members to take care of their illness with their personal doctors.

Ishee said inmates who are displaying respiratory illness symptoms are medically quarantined until a doctor clears them.

“We are using cells at this point,” he added. “We are making sure that quarantines are not disciplinary in nature.”

A letter to the legislature outlining procedures and protocols says the state prison system has also implemented aggressive cleaning efforts (by staff and “offenders”), canceled staff gatherings of more than 10 people, offered a non-alcohol based sanitizer to staff and inmates and hung posters from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how to reduce exposure to COVID-19.

Visitation and volunteer visits were suspended March 16, and legal and pastoral visits, as well as vendors and contractors are subject to medical screening before entering the facilities. The prison work release program was suspended statewide a week ago. 

Still, the prison system is not fully prepared for an outbreak if one occurs. 

Data from DPS that was made available in a letter from Gov. Cooper to the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association shows that prisons already are severely understaffed, including high vacancy rates among registered nurses, physicians and certified nursing assistant positions.

Division of Prisons medical facilities at Central Prison and North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women do not have ventilators, which are sometimes necessary to treat those diagnosed with COVID-19. There is a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) available to correctional officers, and there are no state facilities available for incarcerated patients who show symptoms of or test positive for COVID-19. 

Since learning that information, advocates have been pursuing meetings with Ishee to work on ways DPS can prepare for COVID-19. The legislature is also meeting today for the first time to discuss continued DPS operations during the pandemic. 

COVID-19 has already begun to spread in North Carolina’s federal prison facilities. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reported Friday its first staff member at the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner. By Tuesday, two inmates were reported to test positive for the virus at the same facility.  

Other states have also been warning officials about how fast the spread of COVID-19 can take place. Ross MacDonald, Chief Physician of Rikers Island in New York, tweeted yesterday that the facility had its first case 12 days prior and were already up to almost 200 infected individuals, despite extreme proactive health measures.

“This is not a generational public health crisis, rather it is a crisis of a magnitude no generation living today has ever seen,” he tweeted. “It is possible that our efforts will stem this growth, but as a physician I must tell you it is unlikely. I cannot reassure you of something you only wish to be true.”