Few places are more vulnerable to pandemics than prisons. With hundreds of inmates jammed into cramped quarters, they’re breeding grounds for infectious disease. And given that the coronavirus can spread through coughing, sneezing or – research suggests – even talking or breathing, it’s only a matter of time before COVID-19 sweeps through inmate populations like wildfire.
Across North Carolina, more than 35,000 inmates are housed in 50 state and county facilities. Lockdown measures have been in place at most of those facilities for weeks. Visitors and volunteers are no longer permitted. Work release has been suspended. Staff, new inmates and necessary visitors (like lawyers and clergy) must pass medical screenings before they can enter. More recently, the state has halted all but the most essential inmate transfers.
But are these measures enough?
The likely answer is no. Masks and ventilators are still in short supply. Staffing shortages – especially among medical personnel – are widespread. And, for the most part, inmates are literally unable to practice social distancing. They’re crammed together, stacked in bunk beds, sharing sinks and toilets and showers. Hand sanitizer is prohibited in state facilities (due to its alcohol content), and inmates rarely have the freedom or access to wash their hands as frequently as needed.
The spread is already starting. As of April 7, eight inmates in three North Carolina state prisons have tested positive for COVID.
What about early release?
Reducing the prison population is key to preventing catastrophic outbreaks. Health experts are advocating for early release or home monitoring of nonviolent offenders.
Many counties in North Carolina are considering releasing nonviolent inmates with chronic health conditions or other high-risk factors. The Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court has encouraged efforts to lower bonds and make them unsecured so more inmates can get out of jail while their cases are creeping through the justice system. Within the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, discussions are still underway about whether to offer early release for nonviolent offenders who have almost completed their sentences. And while the governor has the authority to order their release, he has yet to do so.
As the federal situation illustrates, it may soon be too late.
The federal response (or lack thereof)
A nightmare is already unfolding in the federal prison system. While Attorney General Barr has taken steps to expedite the release of vulnerable inmates, the Department of Justice is facing lawsuits over failing to act soon enough to prevent the growing number of COVID deaths in federal prisons. Several federal facilities across the country have been flooded with cases. And Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is dragging its heels, having released only a fraction of the 35,000 immigrants currently detained. Many of those immigrants have asylum cases pending, and the vast majority have no criminal history.
It’s not just a prison problem
The reality is that many detention facilities – state and federal – don’t have the staff or medical capabilities to deal with a tsunami of COVID cases. That means sick inmates will be filling beds at civilian hospitals, further burdening the already strained medical system.
The bottom line? Early release isn’t just about the inmates. It’s about all of us.