The ACLU of North Carolina and other organizations are urging Gov. Roy Cooper and other public officials to reduce the number of people who are in local jails and prisons across the state as the coronavirus continues to spread.
“We at the ACLU along with our broad coalition are deeply concerned that those involved in the criminal justice system continue to be the most vulnerable to the coronavirus,” Ann Webb, policy counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina, said Thursday. “We urge the stakeholders to do as much as possible. That means taking swift action to reduce the number of people in jails (and prisons).”
The other organizations joining with the ACLU of North Carolina include Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility at Duke Law, Community Success Initiative, Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform, Disability Rights North Carolina and North Carolina Justice Center. The groups sent letters to Cooper, the N.C. Department of Public Safety, the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police and the N.C. Sheriffs Association.
Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill said Wednesday that his office is working with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office and others on ways to control the inmate population at the Forsyth County Jail “without compromising public safety.”
“The danger is obvious, given the COVID-19 epidemic, when an individual is brought down to the jail, and processed in as an inmate,” he said. “There is a risk that if that same individual is carrying the virus, the potential exists that the entire jail population could be infected.”
He said his office is using electronic house arrest when appropriate to help manage the jail population.
Guilford County officials announced Thursday that they are working to release inmates with low bonds. Mecklenburg County’s criminal justice system is looking at reducing the inmate population.
It was unclear whether Forsyth County officials are doing anything on the scale of what Guilford County is doing. The ACLU of North Carolina and other organizations are recommending releasing nonviolent offenders and people who are stuck in jail awaiting trial on nonviolent misdemeanors and low-level felonies because they cannot afford bond. If they pose no risk to public safety, they should be released, the ACLU of North Carolina and others said.
Webb said that if people cannot be released, jails and prisons need to come up with policies to make sure those inmates are getting proper medical care, particularly older inmates, inmates who have underlying health problems and pregnant inmates. Inmates also should have access to hygiene products so they can wash their hands.
Webb also said inmates who need to be isolated should not be placed in solitary confinement because that will cause more harm than good.
Christina Howell, spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said new inmates are already given a medical evaluation when they are processed at the jail. Medical personnel are now asking those inmates specific questions related to the coronavirus. Detention officers and others who work at the jail have their temperature checked every day and are asked questions related to the coronavirus. Anyone who feels sick is encouraged to go home and contact their medical provider.
There have been no reported cases of the coronavirus at the jail, Howell said.
Paul James, Forsyth County’s public defender, said there have been conversations among all the stakeholders about how to control the jail population.
“Steps have already been taken but we are continuing to evolve our procedures,” he said. “The Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Todd Burke, the Chief District Judge Lisa Menefee, the Public Defender’s Office and the DA’s Office, and the Sheriff’s Office have all been actively engaged in a mutually cooperative process to try to work our way through these issues.”