The North Carolina Department of Public Safety announced today that it is reviewing 500 incarcerated people for early release to combat the spread of COVID-19 in state prison and juvenile detention facilities.
The Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice also already moved the first individuals last week out of custody, and they will continue to serve their sentence in the community, according to a news release.
“The department has been reviewing all options to protect public safety as well as our employees and those in the state’s custody,” said Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks. “Many of those options were implemented quickly, providing immediate impact, while others have required more preparation.”
DPS had announced several initiatives in the past week to prevent the spread of the virus, including suspending visitation and other programs; providing incarcerated individuals with extra soap and requiring additional cleaning regimens; medically screening staff and new offenders; suspending the transfer of incarcerated people from county jails; and reducing the movement of individuals within the prison system.
Still, more than 35 incarcerated people in six prison facilities have tested positive for COVID-19, “necessitating use of stronger measures.” In addition, 20 staff at 10 facilities have self-reported positive test results for the virus.
NC Policy Watch has been reporting extensively about the conditions in jails, prisons and detention facilities and calls from public health officials and advocates to reduce the density of those populations before an outbreak. Until today, their calls had been mostly unanswered, despite the power of Gov. Roy Cooper and DPS to act.
This new initiative comes a few days after several civil rights organizations and incarcerated people filed a lawsuit with the North Carolina Supreme Court asking for immediate help to release as many people as possible from detention centers across the state. The initiative was announced in a news release and in a response to the lawsuit filed today at the high court.
“By law, the Public Safety secretary has the authority to allow certain individuals to serve their sentence outside of a DPS prison facility, but under the supervision of community corrections officers and/or special operations officers,” the release states.
Adult Correction is reviewing additional incarcerated people to potentially release them to the community to complete their sentence under supervision. All individuals under consideration must meet strict criteria and legal requirements, such as victim notification in certain cases, before a transfer to the community is approved. The approximately 500 people being considered cannot have been convicted of a violent crime against a person and must fall within one of the following categories:
• Pregnant offenders
• Offenders age 65 and older with underlying health conditions
• Female offenders age 50 and older with health conditions and a release date in 2020
• Offenders age 65 and older with a release date in 2020
• Offenders already on home leave with a release date in 2020
• Offenders on work release with a release date in 2020
DPS reported it had released six people Thursday. All were women who were either pregnant, age 65 or older and considered to be in a high-risk category as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In a separate effort to reduce the number of incarcerated people in its facilities, DPS has been awarding time credits, where appropriate and in accordance with its statutory authority. It allows some individuals to reduce their maximum sentence and be released to the community upon completion of the minimum sentence.
In March alone, more than 300 incarcerated people originally scheduled for release in April, May or June, were transitioned to post-release supervision by completing their minimum sentence. Through that process, many individuals who were scheduled for release this spring or early summer have already been discharged or are on an expedited schedule for transition in the next few weeks.
A total of 2,200 offenders were released in March, according to DPS. Since January of this year, more than 6,900 individuals were released from a DPS facility — an increase of more than 10% over the same period in 2019. In addition to the actions of DPS, the North Carolina Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission is also reviewing people under its authority for possible release.
The release states that over the past week, the commission has released more than a dozen pregnant women to community supervision.
“We do not take these new measures lightly,” said Tim Moose, Chief Deputy Secretary of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice. “Our staff are working in accordance with CDC guidelines, while being mindful of adult risk management, as well as reentry best practices in order to identify and transition adult offenders into our communities in a safe and efficient manner.
“This is an ongoing process. We will continue to work diligently to monitor best practices and offender risk, while coordinating any future releases to community supervision, as well as adjusting to this ever-evolving situation to protect our staff, the incarcerated community and the community at large.”
Hooks spoke today at Cooper’s press conference, and mostly reiterated information in the earlier news release. He also said Juvenile Justice is working on returning youths in detention centers back to their home communities in a “step-down home program.”
Read the Governor’s and DPS’ response to the Supreme Court lawsuit below.