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In NC Prisons, COVID-19 Outbreak Could Mean A Death Sentence

(AP Photo/ Daniel R. Patmore)

As of April 7, a surge of COVID-19 cases at the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner sent the total number of infections to 62 — the highest among the nation’s federal prisons, according to The News and Observer.

Overcrowding and understaffing has public health officials concerned that prisons, jails, and detention centers will become the next epicenters of the outbreak. Some district attorneys are joining with families and advocates to expedite inmate releases from potentially dangerous situations. At the same time, much of the court system is at a standstill until June 1, 2020, and law enforcement officers are shifting strategies to avoid detaining offenders.

Will the justice system’s emergency protocol result in more crime or a reevaluation of policing and punishment? We hear messages from former inmates, family of those imprisoned and law enforcement.

Credit Courtesy of Kristie Puckett-Williams
Courtesy of Kristie Puckett-Williams
Puckett-Williams speaking at a press conference in front of the Mecklenburg County Jail.

Host Frank Stasio speaks with Joseph Neff, a staff writer with The Marshall Project, as well as Kristie Puckett-Williams, the Statewide Campaign for For Smart Justice manager for the ACLU of North Carolina, and Chuck Manning, director of the Welcome Home Program and lead peer support specialist for the reentry of early-release detainees for the City of Durham's COVID-19 Task Force.

Then Stasio asks North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley to explain her reasons for freezing the state’s court system yet allowing local judges to decide which cases are too urgent to delay. 


Joseph Neff on why prisons are hotbeds for outbreaks:

You have to think of prisons or jails like a cruise ship or a nursing home. You have a confined population. The people can't get up and walk out the gate because they're incarcerated. And if the virus gets in the prison — we've seen it's incredibly infectious and moves very easily from place to place, from person to person. And in jails and prisons, people are cheek to jowl. It's impossible to socially isolate yourself, to socially distance yourself by that six foot margin that all the doctors say we should be using. So once it gets in — once the virus gets into a closed facility — it's like a petri dish … The turnover in jails is roughly 25% a week. So meaning at the end of a month, you're essentially seeing the entire population turn over. So it's very transient. And those people who come out of jails when they're bailed out or released pre-trial go right back into the community. So they are potentially real hotspots.

Kristie Puckett-Williams on how staying in jail during this outbreak is unjustly risky:

When we talk about people in jails, oftentimes those are people who were too poor to purchase their freedom from the government, from the state; they were unable to afford a bail that was set. And simply because they are poor, people being held pretrial [and] are being put at risk for COVID ... We see families not able to afford — because of COVID and their loss of income — being able to put money on the books so that people can call home; so that people can have commissary; so that their family can purchase soap and extra cleansing items for themselves. And so that puts a heavy strain on a family as well as not being able to bail their family member out.

Chuck Manning on supporting prisoners who will get early release: 

With early release and the COVID-19 epidemic really being a high priority for the city of Durham, we have put together a team of individuals who are working around specifically the reentry process for these individuals. … I myself have been in and out of jail and prison since the age of 11. … We utilize that lived experience in assisting individuals in accomplishing short-term goals but also creating a sense of accountability. … The days do go by quicker when you have somebody that you can relate to. Somebody who has actually slept on those bunks and took showers with multiple numbers of men and had to walk the yard … and you know, eat from the mess hall. You need individuals like that to kind of learn from, especially in the immediate transition process from prison to society.

Cheri Beasley on whether people who can’t afford bail will remain jailed until courts reopen in June:

Local authorities do have the authority to go forward with a lot of those hearings, in terms of people who are incarcerated in our local jails. The sheriffs and the district attorneys and the judges are evaluating those cases literally day by day. And actually the populations, as I understand it, in our local jails for most of our counties, are actually down these days and probably down further than … they have been in recent years. … Local officials tend to keep track of inmates and determining which cases can go forward and can be accelerated anyway, and certainly they're extremely mindful of that as we're experiencing this pandemic.

Cheri Beasley on whether she would order judges to make non-monetary bail the first option:

We had already, before the pandemic, begun to assess pretrial release conditions. We'd already instituted a program in the western part of our state which allows for a different kind of assessment and application of pretrial release conditions, which also assessed and determined when the lawyer might be engaged in that process. And we were already beginning to see some successes around determining pretrial release conditions. And so we will continue that program, and we will continue to analyze and determine how best to determine pretrial release conditions and what resources are needed to make that happen. I think you're right that in a pandemic, we're certainly making assessments very differently about that. 

Grant Holub-Moorman coordinates events and North Carolina outreach for WUNC, including a monthly trivia night. He is a founding member of Embodied and a former producer for The State of Things.
Jennifer Brookland is the American Homefront Project Veterans Reporting Fellow. She covers stories about the military and veterans as well as issues affecting the people and places of North Carolina.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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