On Sunday, about 40 protesters marched around the Executive Mansion in Raleigh, calling on Gov. Roy Cooper to use his pardon and clemency powers to free prisoners who are at serious risk of contracting COVID-19.
It would be an unconventional solution, but as demonstrator Daniel Bowes said at the protest, “It’s the most flexible and direct path to both protect people from COVID in prison, but also to end mass incarceration.”
Dramatic steps may be necessary. Prison inmates, with few protections available in their closed environments, are an especially vulnerable population.
Back in June, we noted that five inmates as well as a prison nurse at Caswell Correctional Center had died from COVID. In Albemarle Correctional Institution, a medium-custody prison, at least 60 inmates had been infected. Since then, matters have only gotten worse.
Last week, North Carolina authorities reported more than 4,500 cases and 22 deaths within its state prisons. That’s triple the number of cases since July. Nearly 200 new positive cases have been identified so far this month.
And that’s just the state prisons. At Butner Correctional Complex, North Carolina’s only federal prison, 26 prisoners have died; that’s more than at any other federal prison. More than 900 Butner inmates have tested positive.
The state prison system has taken steps to mitigate the threat, including increased testing, decreased prison transfers and releasing up to 700 prisoners through an Extended Limits of Confinement program. The prison population is at the lowest it has been since the early 2000s, authorities say.
But more should be done.
Some will feel little sympathy for prison inmates, assuming them to be bad people who are getting what they deserve.
But death by COVID was not part of their sentences.
Some will assume that if they’re released, they’ll just go out and commit more crimes — essentially punishing them for crimes that have not been committed.
Ironically, though many are trapped within prison walls, the virus is not trapped there.
"This is not just a matter of the public safety and the lives of incarcerated people, but community health as well,” Leah Kang, an attorney with ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation, told ABC11 News. “There are prison staff that comes in and out of those prisons every day that return to their families every day. There are communities surrounding these prisons that are at risk because our state is failing to manage the state prison population."
In Texas’s correctional facilities, more than 230 people have died from COVID-19 — and in county jails, nearly 80% of them were in pretrial detention and hadn’t even been convicted of a crime, according to a study by the University of Texas in Austin. That’s not a situation we’d want to duplicate.
"It is not acceptable to be telling incarcerated people and their families that they just have to wait. We are several months into this pandemic and experts tell us it could be another year, possibly more, before this pandemic is fully resolved. People's lives are at stake and the state needs to do more to bring the state prison population under control," Kang said.
Cooper should do what he can to release nonviolent inmates to house arrest. Shrinking the prison population makes the situation safer for them, for prison employees and for the prisoners who must remain incarcerated.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!