NC prisons will ‘shelter in place’ to combat COVID-19; agency not tracking staff cases

To combat the spread of COVID-19, the North Carolina Division of Prisons will stop accepting incarcerated people from county jails into its facilities and will dramatically reduce transfers within the system for 14 days starting at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

“We must deny this virus the opportunity to spread,” said Todd Ishee, commissioner of prisons. “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.”

The plan is in effect a “stay at home order” but for incarcerated people, and it is supported by the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association. The order will apply to the majority of the 34,400 incarcerated people in the state prison system. It is valid from April 7 to 21, at which point the plan will be reassessed, according to a news release.

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Division of Prisons, is reporting seven incarcerated people who have tested positive for COVID-19; they are in Johnston, Caledonia and Neuse correctional institutions. Over the weekend, face masks were distributed to all staff and offenders at those prisons, according to DPS.

DPS spokesman John Bull said Monday that the agency cannot and will have an accurate count of the number of staff who have self-reported testing positive for COVID-19.

“These tests are done in consultation with their primary care physicians and they do not have to tell us the results,” he added.

Bull did not immediately respond to follow-up questions, including about how DPS will ensure that anyone else (incarcerated or not) in direct contact with a sick staffer is tested — as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends — if they don’t report it.

The 14-day moratorium on the acceptance of new people from the county jails, and the suspension of the vast majority of offender transportation between the prisons, is in keeping with the spirit of the CDC’s guidance to the country to shelter in place, according to the news release.

Incarcerated people will continue to be transferred over the next two weeks for several reasons:

• To comply with court orders;
• For medical or mental health reasons;
• For security purposes to address critical incidents within the prisons;
• To release offenders who have completed their prison sentences.

Efforts are also underway to transfer incarcerated people who are scheduled for release over the next two weeks to areas close to their homes. There, they will be released in accordance with their individual release plans, according to DPS. No incarcerated person will remain in detention past their scheduled release date.

Correction Enterprises is producing face shields, hospital-style gowns and washable face masks. All staff and every incarcerated person will get a face mask once enough are manufactured, according to DPS. The entity is also producing large quantities of alcohol-free sanitizer and hand lotion to be used in all the prisons.

For the past month, incarcerated people throughout the prison system with fevers, coughs and symptoms of respiratory illness have been isolated in the prisons from the prison general population. Testing for COVID-19 is being done per CDC recommendations. The results are usually obtained within 48 hours, according to DPS.

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