Local advocates are demanding that Forsyth County officials do more to reduce the number of inmates at the county jail to stop the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by novel coronavirus.
The Forsyth County Community Bail Fund, a nonprofit organization that raises bail money for jail inmates awaiting trial, is circulating an online petition requesting the immediate release of as many inmates from the Forsyth County jail as possible. Other organizations and community activists have signed onto the petition, which had received just over 100 signatures by Tuesday.
Julie Brady, the president of the community bail fund and a law student at Wake Forest University, said most people being held at the jail are there because they can’t afford bail.
“Holding people in jail because they cannot pay their way out in the middle of a public health crisis is unsafe and unjust,” Brady said in a news release.
County officials say they are working to release inmates while ensuring that the public is safe. As of Tuesday morning, the jail had 701 inmates, according to Christina Howell, the spokeswoman for the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, which is in charge of the jail. In 2018, the jail population averaged about 850 inmates a day, Howell said.
So far, the jail has no reported cases of the virus that causes COVID-19. As of Wednesday morning, North Carolina had 504 cases COVID-19, including 15 in Forsyth County, according to the latest figures from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. The agency also reported the state’s first death from COVID-19.
Brady said in the news release that inmates at the Forsyth County jail face a high risk of getting the virus that causes COVID-19 and spreading it. Many inmates awaiting trial have had their court cases continued until at least April 20 by order of N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, Brady said.
All inmates being held on bail should be released, unless they pose an immediate threat to a specific person, Brady said. She also said inmates age 65 and older, who are serving a sentence of six months or less, who have health problems and do not pose a public-safety risk should be released.
Last week, the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union joined a coalition of organizations and urged Gov. Roy Cooper and other public officials to reduce drastically the number of jail and prison inmates. Guilford County announced that it was releasing inmates whose bail was set low.
Howell said sheriff’s officials have not implemented a new policy related to the coronavirus but are working with the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office to manage the jail population.
The jail has put in place new procedures to screen detention officials and new inmates for the coronavirus. Detention officials, new inmates and contract workers have their temperature checked before coming into the jail, and public visitation to the jail has been barred, except for criminal-defense attorneys.
Defendants can no longer serve their sentences on the weekends, and all first-appearances for defendants are conducted by videoconference. Inmates coming into the jail are also asked specific questions to determine whether they have symptoms of the coronavirus or have been exposed to it.
Howell said law-enforcement officers are being asked to cite misdemeanor offenders instead of bringing them to the jail.
The district attorney’s office is working with the jail-population specialist to make sure that jail beds are being reserved for violent offenders or for defendants who pose a public-safety risk. In some cases, some inmates have been released on electronic house arrest, and some bonds have been unsecured so that inmates can be released.
Forsyth County prosecutors say they notify victims of crimes before they consider reducing a suspect’s bail.
Other states have taken some action to deal with jail and prison populations.
On Sunday, New Jersey’s chief justice took the most sweeping action yet — ordering the release of 1,000 inmates. That order applied to inmates jailed for probation violation and those convicted of misdemeanor and low-level felonies. Other states have released sick or vulnerable inmates, The New York Times reported.
President Donald Trump has said he is considering issuing an executive order to release older, nonviolent inmates from federal prison.
Brady said more needs to be done and thinks the jail population should be reduced to a daily total of about 100 inmates. She said she understands that some inmates, including those charged with murder, might not be able to be released, but a large number of inmates who don’t pose a threat to public safety could be.
“Ideally, there would be zero people,” Brady said, acknowledging that would be unrealistic. “It’s such a unique health crisis that we’re in now that there needs to be some unique measures taken.”