On March 19, a coalition of groups advocating on behalf of the imprisoned—including the N.C. Justice Center’s Fair Chance Criminal Justice Project and the state ACLU—asked Governor Cooper to reduce the number of people entering the state’s prisons and called for the release of vulnerable people in prisons and jails to prevent a public health crisis.

There are 14,000 corrections officers, including medical staffers, responsible for monitoring the nearly 35,000 people housed in 50 prisons scattered across the state. The coronavirus, the ACLU argues, is more likely to attack black and brown people who are behind bars in North Carolina and across the country because they are disproportionately incarcerated. 

Cooper’s office was not available for comment Wednesday, but the governor has been mindful of the risks posed by the coronavirus. Earlier this month, Cooper suspended visitation at the state’s prisons to reduce the risk of an outbreak. Days before, justice officials in Durham and Wake Counties suspended visitation and worked in concert with district attorneys and judges to reduce their jail populations.

In a statement this week, Daniel Bowes, director of the Fair Chance Criminal Justice Project, said more is needed on a statewide level. Bowes says that in order to “partially mitigate a catastrophic outbreak of COVID-19, it is crucial that Governor Roy Cooper, Secretary of the NC Department of Public Safety Erik A. Hooks, Attorney General Josh Stein, and local district attorneys and judges use every tool at their disposal to significantly and immediately reduce the number of people in our state prisons.”

Understaffing in state prisons and its “destructive effects on prison safety have been frequent topics of research and discussion” since 2017,” Bowens continued. That year, five prison staffers lost their lives at the hands of inmates—four in Pasquotank County during an attempted escape and a sergeant killed by a prisoner in Bertie County.

As of January 2019, Bowes said, the vacancy rate for correctional officers was nearly 20 percent. Even direr: As of September, nearly 30 percent of registered nurse positions and a similar percentage of physician positions in state prisons were vacant. 

Fair Chance says the staffing issues “severely undermine prison safety, including the delivery of health care to people in prison, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

Health officials say that individuals who are older and have underlying medical conditions are more susceptible to coronavirus.  

For Bowens and other coalition members, that’s cause for grave concern. More than 25 percent of individuals incarcerated in state prisons are over the age of 45. Nearly one-third have chronic medical conditions that make them more susceptible to severe illness and death—including 71 percent of prisoners who are over the age of 50. 

Another problem: The state’s two largest corrections hospitals at Central Prison and the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women do not have any ventilators, according to Bowes.

State corrections spokesman John Bull told the INDY that as of last week, there had been no reported cases of the coronavirus in any of the state’s prisons. He said in response to the epidemic, corrections officials have “ramped up” the manufacture of soap, sanitizers, and disinfectants that are distributed throughout the prison system.

Nine inmates at the federal Butner Correctional Institution have been diagnosed with COVID-19. All federal inmates are now on a 14-day lockdown.  

Contact Thomasi McDonald at tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

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