COVID-19, Defending Democracy, News

5 Questions: How is the North Carolina prison system keeping inmates safe from COVID-19?

Image: Adobe Stock

As people in the United States are social distancing themselves to protect one other from the spread of COVID-19, inmates in correctional facilities have few such options. They live in close quarters, making it difficult to stay 6 feet apart at all times, as recommended by federal health officials, and they have even more limited choices for sanitation and hygiene.

Still, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety says it’s taking several measures to prevent a widespread outbreak of the disease that causes the new coronavirus.

DPS Communications Officer for Adult Corrections John Bull discussed the situation with Policy Watch and outlined the prison system’s current safety measures.

1. How is the North Carolina corrections system preparing for coronavirus?

A number of actions are being taken. Please see the attached press release (uploaded below).

2. Is alcohol-based hand sanitizer considered contraband in North Carolina prisons (the product contains a high percentage of alcohol that can be separated out from the gel substance)? If so, is there an alternative?  What cleaning products are available to inmates for their individual cells?

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is considered contraband in North Carolina prisons, as it is in many other prisons. Offenders and staff are being urged to do the following:

  • Wash your hands frequently during the day, especially before eating or handling food. Scrub hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before rinsing completely with warm water.
  • After washing your hands, avoid potential for re-contamination by using a paper towel to turn off faucets or open doors.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are displaying symptoms of illness.
  • Correction Enterprise is creating a non-alcohol sanitizing lotion for use in Department of Public Safety. Until the lotion supplies are delivered, offenders will continue to use soap. All prisons are well stocked with soap and disinfectants.

3. Are there currently any suspected cases of coronavirus among the state’s inmate population?

No.

4. What would the protocol be if someone in prison tested positive for coronavirus?

Offenders who test positive for COVID-19 would be isolated and treated in keeping with the Division of Prisons infectious disease protocol.

5. Has the North Carolina corrections system dealt with a pandemic or situation like this before? If so, what was it, when and what happened?

The prison system has extensive experience with seasonal outbreaks of the flu, norovirus and other contagious diseases. Patients are isolated, treated and the causes of the illnesses are investigated. I don’t believe anyone has experience with dealing with the challenges of a pandemic. The last one in the United States was the Spanish Flu in 1918, according to the CDC’s website. Prisons staff were very active and successful in handling Influenza A virus subtype H1N1 in 2009.



COVID-19, Defending Democracy, Education, News

Gov. Cooper closes NC schools for at least 2 weeks; prohibits gatherings of more than 100 people

COVID-19 (Image:CDC)

Gov. Roy Cooper announced today that all K-12 schools in North Carolina will be closed beginning Monday for at least two weeks in response to the rapidly changing situation associated with COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus.

He also issued an executive order to prohibit gatherings of more than 100 people. He had issued guidance Thursday to cancel those mass gatherings, but said today that a number of venues were not complying, so his order makes it mandatory.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Cooper explained at a press conference. “I don’t want any regrets in our rear-view mirror when this pandemic subsides. … This is a risk we cannot tolerate. … No concert is worth the spread of this pandemic.”

The executive order does not apply to restaurants, shopping malls or other retail businesses.

Cooper’s announcement about school closures came 24 hours after he said schools would remain open. However, earlier today, Wake County announced a teacher had tested positive for the virus. The Governor said the teacher’s situation didn’t factor into the new decision, but that it was intended to address the patchwork of school closures across the state.

“We need a period of time here to assess the threat of COVID-19 and to make sure we have a coordinated statewide response to deal with the fallout when you don’t have children in schools,” Cooper said. “I’m not sure there is a right or wrong here because there is so much we don’t know. If we are going to err here, we want to err on the side of caution.”

Cooper has appointed a child nutrition task force to work on ways to ensure low-income students can still be fed and have their immediate needs met while out of school.

North Carolina Board of Education Chair Eric Davis also said they are committed to mitigating the impact of the school closures by helping to coordinate food delivery for students and asking the General Assembly to give waivers to school districts. The Board is also working with higher education systems in their responses to the virus.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson said at the Saturday press conference that the decision to close schools was not one they wanted to make, but it is “the right decision.” He said the school districts have been planning for the past week on how to cope with closures.

There have been 23 positive COVID-19 cases in 12 North Carolina counties, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said health officials are continuing to test individuals who have a fever, cough and test negative for the flu.

The situation regarding testing supplies has improved, but she said it’s important to note that getting tested does not mean getting treatment. She added that while testing is an important in the first phase of this work, they are trying to make sure sick people can be treated.

COVID-19 responses are developing and changing multiple times per day. Follow NC Policy Watch for updates as they become available.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Advocates offer pro tips on how to combat burdensome court fines, fees

The People’s Convening on Fines and Fees in North Carolina kicked off a campaign over the weekend to end the practice of saddling poor people with overburdensome court fines and fees.

The two-day event, held at Bennett College in Greensboro, informed attendees about court fines and fees and how they operate in the state, and they allowed impacted individuals to lead discussions. They also proposed solutions and encouraged community members to get involved on the local level.

Below is the information they provided for people to take action.

Court data and the experiences of impacted people show that people involved in North Carolina’s criminal justice system — especially people of color — are too often being set up to fail because of their inability to pay the range of costs that have become attached to virtually every aspect of the criminal justice system, including reentry.

The collateral consequences of criminal justice debt are often long-term, severe, and economically crippling: indefinite driver’s license suspension, violations and extensions of probation, wage garnishment, tax liability, property forfeiture, bankruptcy, civil judgments, liens, and incarceration. People, families, and communities of color disproportionately and more severely experience these costs and collateral harms. 

Outlined below are several education and advocacy efforts that can be pursued in your community by impacted people and their allies, including you. For regular updates on campaign activities and additional materials, please visit https://www.endcriminaljusticedebtnc.org/ and https://ncsecondchance.org/.

  1. Establish a program to eliminate traffic court debt and restore driver’s licenses. 

In NC, failing to pay a traffic ticket causes an automatic, indefinite suspension of a person’s driver’s license. Court data reveals that traffic court costs are very rarely paid after two years of nonpayment. In 2019, district attorneys in Durham and Mecklenburg led initiatives to eliminate millions of dollars in long-term traffic court debt and thousands of driver’s license suspensions. The debt relief programs piloted in these jurisdictions can be efficiently replicated in all North Carolina jurisdictions if there is support from local court officials, including district attorneys, district court judges, and clerks of court.

Local decision-maker(s)/advocacy target(s): district attorney, judges, clerk of court

Contact for additional guidance/support: Laura Holland, NC Justice Center, laura@ncjustice.org, 919-861-1462

Materials and other resources: https://ncsecondchance.org/resources/second-chance-mobility-starter-packet/ https://sites.law.duke.edu/justsciencelab/

  1. Revise the local bail policy to be fairer, reduce pretrial confinement, and comply with the statutory restrictions on secured money bonds.

North Carolina law provides a common-sense procedure for determining conditions of pretrial confinement that only allows a judge to impose a secured cash bond if the judge determines the person is a flight risk, poses a danger of injury to any person, or is likely to tamper with evidence. Unfortunately, many jurisdictions have substituted these statutorily established procedures and considerations with unfair and problematic bail schedules that imposed specific secured cash bond amounts by default based on the charged offense. In 2019, several jurisdictions have piloted bail policies meant to reduce pretrial confinement.

Decision-maker(s)/advocacy target(s): senior superior and chief district court judges, district attorney

Contact for additional guidance/support: Jennifer Marsh, Self-Help, Jennifer.Marsh@self-help.org, 919-956-4692

Materials and other resources: https://cjil.sog.unc.edu/areas-of-work/bail-reform-2-0/

https://nccriminallaw.sog.unc.edu/bail-reform-in-north-carolina-what-are-the-options/ https://www.rstreet.org/2019/04/25/how-a-north-carolina-county-became-a-laboratory-for-bail-reform/

  1. Promote regular use of petition and order forms by local court officials to facilitate fair consideration of a person’s ability to pay a fine and/or fee at sentencing and prior to imposition of any sanction for failure to pay.

Several statutes provide judges the authority to waive and otherwise eliminate fines and fees in a broad range of circumstances, including inability to pay, change of circumstances, and “proper administration of justice”. For several reasons, judges are rarely using their authority to eliminate fines and fees, including the absence of petition and order forms in a court system that is purposely reliant on standard forms. Jurisdictions can adopt local forms based on the templates linked below.

Decision-maker(s)/advocacy target(s): senior superior and chief district court judges, district attorney

Contact for additional guidance/support: Whitley Carpenter, Forward Justice, wcarpenter@forwardjustice.org, 919-323-3889

Materials and other resources: https://nccriminallaw.sog.unc.edu/a-swiss-army-form-for-fines-and-fees/ https://ncsecondchance.org/resources/template-forms-motion-and-order-to-waive-remit-fines-and-fees/

  1. Use court facility fees to establish a municipal fund to help people pay criminal justice debt.

Read more

Defending Democracy, News, public health

ICYMI: Why are so many Black babies dying in North Carolina? (Video)

If you weren’t able to attend NC Policy Watch’s Crucial Conversation about the Black infant mortality rate in the state, that full program is now available online.

This week’s event featured Lynn Bonner of the News & Observer discussing her seven-month project about the racial disparity in infant mortality rates in North Carolina. She reports that Black babies are more than twice as likely to die than white babies. Other panelists were Whitney Tucker, Research Director at NC Child; Rebecca Cerese, Engagement Coordinator for the N.C. Justice Center’s Health Advocacy Project; and Tina Sherman, Campaign Director for the Breastfeeding and Paid Leave Campaigns at MomsRising.

They talked about the extent of the crisis and offered solutions, both long and short term, for combating racism and offering better care to Black pregnant women.

Stay tuned for an announcement coming soon about the next Crucial Conversations event, which will be a happy hour featuring special guests who will discuss all things related to the North Carolina primary election.

In the meantime, please watch and share this special presentation:

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

NC advocates call for ‘common sense’ democracy reform

North Carolina advocates called on their elected leaders Friday to pass needed reform to combat corruption and strengthen democracy.

Melissa Price Kromm, Director of North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections, La’Meisha Whittington with the N.C. Black Alliance and Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause N.C., gathered on the front lawn of the General Assembly and called for the passage of the For the People Act (HR1) in Congress.

The measure is a comprehensive set of anti-corruption, election security and political reforms that directly respond to the issues raised in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. The U.S. Senate voted yesterday to acquit Trump on articles of impeachment.

“We have to keep fighting at all fronts,” Kromm said. “We are here to say enough is enough; we will fight for democracy; we will save our country, because that’s what true patriots do.”

Whittington said it became very clear during the impeachment trial that the political system is broken. She said that the nation needs to focus on removing barriers that prevents access to the ballot, updating voter systems and securing election infrastructure.

“This act ensures fair maps, automatic voter registration and other common sense democracy reform,” she said.

The advocates also called on North Carolina legislators to pass similar democracy reforms, in addition to ensuring that voters are informed of the money behind elections, strengthening revolving door laws and enacting nonpartisan redistricting reform.

Phillips pointed out that lawmakers are still not discussing redistricting reform, even after being forced by the courts to redraw both the legislative and congressional voting maps because of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering.

“If this year comes and goes and nothing is done, the people will notice,” he said. “Until we get [redistricting reform], we’re going to have a lot of problems with our democracy.”

The time to act is now, Phillips added.