State considering early inmate release amidst COVID-19 pandemic

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COVID-19 found its way into North Carolina prisons this week as inmates at two facilities tested positive for the coronavirus.

The Department of Public Safety on Wednesday reported an offender at the minimum custody unit of the Caledonia Correctional Complex in Tillery tested positive for the virus, marking the first such case in the state prison system.

Discussions within DPS regarding early release for prisoners in an effort to mitigate the virus spread started before the announcement of any confirmed cases. North Carolina could join several states electing to release low level inmates due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“All I know is that it is under discussion,” John Bull, DPS communications director, said. “Legal research is being done and we’ll see.”

A total of nine inmates at Butner Federal Prison also tested positive in the past week, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons website.

A group of health experts on March 27 penned a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper requesting early release for prisoners who are elderly, medically vulnerable or have one year or less remaining on their sentence. The group also called on local officials to drastically reduce jail populations using certain criteria.

“Unless you immediately address this threat, you are leaving North Carolinians vulnerable to a massive outbreak of COVID-19,” the letter, which is signed by 10 health experts from Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said. “But it is within your power to immediately release people from jails and prisons and thus work to mitigate the spread of this disease.”

Harnett County District Attorney Vernon Stewart said his office already implemented a system to identify possible early release candidates. Staff reviews misdemeanors and low-level felonies to resolve cases as quickly as possible.

“There has been an effort, and it’s being encouraged by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to unsecure bonds on those that are charged with misdemeanors and are in jail that have low bonds to get them out of the jails,” said Stewart. “If you have someone under a $500 bond and they can’t make it, but they’re not a risk to the public, go make the bond unsecured and get them out of the jail. They don’t need to be over there.”

Simple possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia, misdemeanor larceny and trespass, Stewart said, are examples of crimes his office brings in for review. Violent crimes, however, are not considered.

“We would not seek and release folks who are high risk, charged with serious felonies, violent or present a risk to the public,” said Stewart. “We’re not going to do that. Your lower-level felonies awaiting trial, we look at those carefully. If it’s more serious felonies, we’re not doing that. We’re trying to make sure we don’t have somebody in the jail who can be released prior to trial without a lot of risk.”

Stewart’s office enacted this practice before the virus outbreak as a way to save the county money. Housing a prisoner costs $70 per day, Stewart said, and COVID-19 added another layer to the process.

“Now, you do it because there are concerns about the virus spreading as well,” said Stewart. “But you would never do it to the adverse effect on the public.”

Prisoners at the state level fall under the Department of Corrections supervision and are subject to its policies and procedures regarding time served. Should state leaders feel reducing prison populations is in the public interest, Stewart hoped the decision would not be taken lightly.

“If they’re going to try and release people early, they certainly need to be cautious,” Stewart said. “I wouldn’t think they would consider anybody other than low-level felonies with no history of violence, and are low risk and have a good support system. You would expect them to serve at least their minimum sentence.”

With the economy crippled from the outbreak, Stewart questioned if releasing prisoners is in the inmate’s best interest.

“Do they have a home?” Stewart asked. “Right now, people are losing their jobs. If they’re released, how will they support themselves? The job market is horrible right now.”

Sen. Jim Burgin expressed skepticism on the possibility of prisoners being released early due to COVID-19. Burgin supported releasing a limited amount of certain prisoners early, but needed more information regarding the possible practice.

“If there is somebody who did a minor crime not involving a gun or violence or personal injury or something like that, then I think we can look at it,” said Burgin. “I’m not for releasing people just to be releasing people. If it’s somebody who is almost through with their time, say they’re two or three weeks from getting out anyways, I don’t have a problem with that. I am completely against releasing somebody who has raped somebody or committed a violent crime. I have expressed that to the people in Raleigh.”

Burgin agreed with Stewart’s assessment of the economy and thought prisons could be safer than the general public at the moment. State prisons enacted strict visitation protocols last month and easily can follow Cooper’s shelter-in-place order. Should an inmate become sick, Burgin said prisons are equipped to treat them medically.

“Even if we release them, we are they going to go?” Burgin said. “What’s their housing situation? We can actually turn them out into a worse scenario. They are probably safer there than out on the street. If we let somebody out of jail, do you think they’re going to go home and shelter in place? They’ve been in jail and they’re going to want to go out and do stuff. It sends the wrong message to the public that we’re releasing people out who haven’t served their time.”

Earlier this year, Burgin attended a N.C. Second Chance forum in Lillington to show his support for a program that tries to help former inmates successfully transition into society and avoid recidivism. Releasing prisoners over virus concerns, Burgin said, does not fall under the same umbrella.

“Those people who served their time and did what they were supposed to do and a certain amount of time had past and it was a nonviolent crime not involving a firearm, I’m all for expunging their records,” Burgin said. “I really want to help people get a second chance. How is this necessarily helping people? They’re saying to reduce population, but I don’t know how it helps the situation. It’s something else that is distracting from the main message, and that is to get through this and get people back to work. I know they’re in a confined space, but they did a crime.”

State prisons house 34,400 inmates across more than 50 facilities in North Carolina. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reported 57 inmates and 37 staff members tested positive for COVID-19 nationwide.

Eliot Duke can be reached at eduke@mydailyrecord.com or at 910-230-2038.

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