[Note: This story has been updated with comments from the state Department of Public Safety in Italics.]
North Carolina’s prison system lags in reducing the incarcerated population during the COVID-19 pandemic and controlling infections, according to a report released Wednesday by the Prison Policy Initiative, a criminal justice research think tank.
Researchers at the nonprofit graded states based on 30 criteria related to responses to COVID-19 in prisons, including population reduction, disease control and death rate, and vaccination, as well as other policies for mitigating health risks in these congregate-living settings.
North Carolina, with 37 other states, received the lowest failing grade of an ‘F.’ In terms of policy changes to protect the health of the incarcerated, the state scored second to last, only slightly better than Georgia.
John Bull, Communications Officer at the state Department of Public Safety pushed back against the findings of the report in an email statement, saying the Prison Policy Initiative lacks expertise in epidemiology.
He wrote that than 11,000 have been released from prison since January. “It should also be noted North Carolina’s prison population is the lowest it has been in 20 years,” he added.
“This PPI report also neglects to even mention what has been done to transition folks back into the community,” Bull wrote. “NC has taken extensive steps to assist individuals with reentry, which even in normal times is difficult, but add in a pandemic and individuals face countless more barriers.”
“The highest ranking state is New Jersey with a ‘C’ grade. The state has vaccinated 89% of its incarcerated population and reduced its prison population by 42%.”
The report alleged that North Carolina is also one of eight states that did not offer free phone calls in prison during the pandemic.
Bull said that the phone service vendor offered two free five-minute phone calls each week to those who were incarcerated at the onset of the pandemic.
Early release and decarceration efforts
Historical data compiled by the Marshall Project show that North Carolina reduced the incarcerated population by less than 20% between March 2020 and July 2021,: from 34,256 to 28,765. Half of the prison population was Black and Latino as of February 2021.
The COVID Behind Bars Data Project developed by researchers at the UCLA Law School, tracks prison policies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the project, North Carolina changed its policies to speed up releases, especially for minor offenses and compassionate release related to medical concerns. For example, in May 2020, the state Department of Public Safety, which oversees state prisons, reduced sentences for hundreds of vulnerable people, including those who were older and who were pregnant. The state, however, did not suspend incarceration for technical violations of parole and probation conditions.
DPS has granted early reentry to 4,450 people to transition back into their communities through post-release supervision and parole programs, as well as sentence reduction. For instance, more than 1,500 were allowed to serve the remainder of their sentences outside of prisons as part of the Extended Limits of Confinement program, according to the email statement from DPS.
As Policy Watch previously reported, the state also agreed to release 3,500 who were incarcerated in a February settlement with civil rights groups.
Vaccination and disease control
According to the report, about 60% of the prison population was vaccinated as of July 1.
In North Carolina, the incarcerated people’s death rate of 0.19% is slightly higher than the 0.13% among the general public.
But the cumulative infection rate is 35.2%, almost quadruple the 9.7% share in overall population, according to CDC data. However, a joint investigation by North Carolina Health News and VICE News in February revealed undercounts of the death toll in prisons. The state Department of Public Safety modified its reporting protocol in March, according to news reports.
The most recent DPS data show that there are currently 0.6% of positive cases among prisoners.
In an earlier email, a DPS spokesperson John Bull said that the state prison system seeks to make vaccines available to anyone who wishes to receive one and provides information and transparency.
Bull wrote that the department offered the following incentives to encourage vaccination among those incarcerated: Five days of sentence credits for those eligible, or otherwise $5 credit in the facility canteen, four additional visitation sessions, one free 10-minute phone call, and earlier return to an assigned job, program or educational activity. These incentives expired in June.
However, North Carolina prisons still charge medical copays for conditions other than COVID-19, whereas 12 states including Virginia canceled all copays, according to a survey by the Prison Policy Initiative.
[Note: The above paragraph has been updated to clarify that DPS does not charge copays for treatment for COVID-related symptoms.]
Transparency and reporting
The UCLA Law School’s COVID Behind Bars Data Project shows that North Carolina does not provide detailed reporting of staff infections, tests and vaccinations. There’s only a state total of vaccination status, for example.
Earlier this year, a University of Texas-Austin report gave North Carolina a ‘C-‘ grade for its data reporting, a medium-level grade.
You can visit DPS’s website for more details on infections at individual facilities.
Read the full report and its methodology here.