State prison officials announced a 14-day moratorium on accepting new offenders into the corrections system to reduce the spread of COVID-19 behind bars.

The new order goes into effect on Tuesday and will continue until April 21.

The prison system will transfer inmates “free of COVID-19 symptoms” to assigned prisons over the next two days, according to a statement.

“We must deny this virus the opportunity to spread,” Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee said in a statement Monday afternoon. “It has gotten into three of our prisons, and we must contain it there to the greatest degree possible. This is imperative for the health and safety of our staff and the men and women who are in our care.” 

California Governor Gavin Newsome issued a similar order on March 25. His order did not go as far as criminal reformers had hoped, in that it did not set free elderly and medically vulnerable inmates. Rather, it instructed counties to keep adults and juveniles at local jails.

When Florida enacted a similar hold on transferring inmates from county jails to state prisons in mid-March, justice-reform advocates worried that it could create overcrowding, which in turn could lead to outbreaks of COVID-19. 

Wake District Attorney Lorrin Freeman told the INDY that she did not think North Carolina’s moratorium would place a strain on the county’s jail population.

“I believe it shows that the prison system is being proactive and working collaboratively with the sheriffs across the state in an effort to maintain the health of those in custody,” she says.

Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker says there are currently 52 inmates at the jail awaiting transfer to state prisons. He told the INDY the prison system’s announcement “is conducive to the emergency orders and judicial efforts that have been put in place to prevent the virus from spreading and affecting the residents and staff in our facilities.”

Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead and District Attorney Satana Deberry were not immediately available for comment on Monday. 

According to the Division of Prisons’ statement, the system’s plan is supported by the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association. 

Last week, seven people housed at Johnston, Caledonia, and Neuse Correctional facilities tested positive for the highly contagious disease. A group of prisoners at the Neuse prison in Goldsboro organized a protest and refused to go back to their dormitories on Thursday afternoon when the warden and members of his medical staff attempted to speak with them about a fellow inmate who had tested positive for COVID-19.

Prison officials say the plan is, in effect, a stay-at-home order for “the vast majority” of the 34,000 people locked up in the system. 

The order to not accept newly convicted offenders from the state’s county jails, along with the suspension of inmate transfers, “is in keeping with the spirit of the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance,” according to the statement.

Ishee said that efforts are underway to release those who will complete their sentences over the next two weeks. The plan, he said, is to release those individuals to areas close to their homes and in accordance with their release plans. 

Prior to the new order, prison officials limited inmate transportation to only new offenders into the system, court-ordered cases, high-priority cases, and for inmates needing health care. The newly arrived offenders were medically screened upon boarding and departing the transport bus, according to the statement.

The state has also distributed face masks to staff and offenders at the three prisons where inmates tested positive last week for COVID-19. The prison system’s in-house manufacturer, Correction Enterprises, is producing face shields, hospital-style gowns, and washable face masks, officials said.   

Correction Enterprises, staffed with prisoner labor, is also producing thousands of gallons of sanitizer and hand lotion that is distributed to the 50 prisons scattered across the state. The products are alcohol-free, prison system spokesman John Bull told the INDY last month. Health authorities recommend sanitizing solutions that contain at least 60 percent alcohol by volume to effectively combat the coronavirus. 

Last month, the state began isolated inmates who had fevers, cough, and symptoms of respiratory illness from the general population and testing them for COVID-19. New inmates were quarantined for 14 days after being medically screened, and staff members at every prison have been subjected to medical screenings, including temperature checks.

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at 

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