Jails and prisons, like nursing homes, face a significant threat from the coronavirus, which thrives in confined, close-quartered populations and preys on the medically vulnerable. 

While no one in the state’s prisons or local jails has tested positive for COVID-19, officials in Durham and Wake Counties aren’t taking any chances. Last week, they released detainees who are older, have underlying health issues, and are charged with nonviolent offenses from county lockups. Court officials also say they’re reviewing custody rolls to locate people they can release. 

John Bull, a spokesman with the state Department of Public Safety, says the state isn’t yet considering early release for offenders housed in corrections facilities across the state.

That hasn’t stopped some inmates from seeking release. Last week, attorneys at the Duke University School of Law representing Ronnie Long—who’s served 44 years in state prison for a rape he says he didn’t commit—asked Governor Cooper to commute Long’s sentence. On March 16, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals granted Long’s motion to rehear his claim that evidence prosecutors withheld at trial might have affected the jury’s verdict; because of the pandemic, however, the court postponed his hearing indefinitely. 

“The COVID-19 virus will make its way into North Carolina’s prisons,” the attorneys wrote in a letter to Cooper, “and Mr. Long is at high risk for severe illness from the virus, as he is above 60 years old and has a chronic underlying condition.”

DPS officials say they’ve ramped up their sanitation and prisoner-hygiene efforts by distributing hundreds of gallons of liquid soap and disinfectant to prevent COVID-19 from breaking out in state prisons.

Bull says that Correction Enterprises, an in-house production company for DPS staffed by inmates, created a non-alcohol-based hand lotion and disinfectant in “large quantities.” (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that individuals use soap and water or hand sanitizer with an alcohol content of at least 60 percent to minimize the risk of contracting the coronavirus.)

Bull declined to comment on DPS’s contingency plans in the event of an outbreak. The prison system houses about 34,300 people across the state. 

“No one has tested positive for COVID-19 at this point,” Bull says. “The great hope is that it does not make its way in.”

Each prison has a medical section or hospital—with the largest at Raleigh’s Central Prison—equipped with health providers experienced at handling infectious disease cases, Bull says. 

The Durham County Sheriff’s Office was not available for comment on Friday about its plans if a detainee tests positive for COVID-19. Last week, the DCSO suspended all in-person and video visitation at the jail, opting instead for remote visitation, and began screening and temporarily quarantining new detainees.  

The Durham County Detention Facility has beds for 736 inmates. On Friday, there were just 326 people in custody.

“We want to make sure they are not a danger to themselves or others who are detained, especially in these times,” District Attorney Satana Deberry told the INDY.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman says her office, along with other court officials, is doing much the same thing. There are four courtrooms still operating in the Wake County Justice Center. Court officials are sending defendants charged with low-level, nonviolent offenses home with unsecured bonds. 

Freeman’s office is encouraging law enforcement to issue notices to appear in court instead of arresting people and working with the Wake County Sheriff’s Office to identify more people in custody who might be eligible for unsecured release. 

In addition, Chief District Court Judge Robert Rader recently signed an order suspending weekend jail sentences for low-level Wake County offenders in an effort to reduce the number of people in jail. 

The detention centers in downtown Raleigh and on Hammond Road have a total bed capacity of 1,568. They currently house almost 2,000 people, including 408 inmates in the jail annex, according to data provided by WCSO spokesman Eric Curry.

According to a March 13 press release, the WCSO updated its screening procedure to include asking new detainees if they’d recently been out of the country or had been in contact with someone who had been diagnosed with COVID-19. 

The jail has four negative-pressure rooms in which to house anyone believed to have been exposed to the coronavirus.

Curry says that while no detainees have tested positive for the coronavirus, the jail’s medical staff is currently monitoring five or six inmates out of an abundance of caution. 

On Friday, he adds, Sheriff Gerald Baker implemented a policy placing all new detainees in single cells for a 14-day period. 

“One or two cases can spread like wildfire,” Curry says. 

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at tmcdonald@indyweek.com. 

DEAR READERS, WE NEED YOUR HELP NOW MORE THAN EVER. Support independent local journalism by joining the INDY Press Club today. Your contributions will keep our fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle, coronavirus be damned.

2 replies on “The Coronavirus Poses a Significant Threat to NC Jail and Prisons. What Are Officials Doing About That?”


  2. I think inmates need to be let out no matter if it’s reached the present or not, we all know it will reach the prison system sooner or later and then what. I feel if a person has two years or less to do inside of a prison system they should be released and just acquired to do a year probation or house arrest but I do feel they should be released.

Comments are closed.