North Carolina prisons and jails are petri dishes for corona virus. “COVID-19 will spread like wildfire in our overcrowded, unhygienic prisons, and present a health risk to entire communities,” said DRNC CEO Virginia Knowlton Marcus in a recent press release. “The evidence is clear that we must act swiftly and sensibly to reduce our prison population, to mitigate the harm of this deadly disease.” People with disabilities living inside prisons and jails are at high risk for suffering and death during this pandemic. “Approximately 32% of people in prison have one or more disabilities,” Knowlton Marcus reported. “Conditions such as diabetes, COPD, heart conditions, and other disabilities place people at increased risk for serious consequences from COVID-19. The same is true for those over 65.”

But the social distancing ordered by Governor Cooper is impossible in correctional facilities. Many of our prisons and jails are overcrowded, and none allow for proper distancing or hygiene.  Most people in prison live in large dormitories and sleep in bunk beds stacked close together. Even those in quarantine rely on close contact with staff for access to food, clothes, medication and showers. They share toilets, showers, dayrooms and dining tables. They stand in line for meals and medicine. Today, face masks are issued to dorm-mates only after someone tests positive for the virus. It is still difficult for people in these facilities to access alcohol-based sanitizer and soap. There is nothing to stop the spread of this disease in these inherently dangerous settings.

Overcrowding in jails and prisons is a problem for the whole community, not just inmates. Prisons and jails are not contained facilities isolated from all outside contact. They are part of our communities.  People enter and exit thousands of times every day. Many come there to work or deliver supplies. Many are released after serving their sentences. Many more enter jails and prisons from the community. The Department of Public Safety (DPS) has stated they do not have respirators and cannot care for people exhibiting severe symptoms of COVID-19. These people will be transferred to community facilities for treatment. An outbreak in a facility means significantly more COVID patients in local hospital beds. Public Health experts agree that reducing the population in correctional facilities is the only way to ensure that people with disabilities can practice the social distancing and hygiene necessary to prevent infection.  Reducing the prison and jails population will lower infection rate and prevent community medical facilities from becoming overburdened.

We are already seeing increased outbreaks in our state and federal correctional facilities. As of April 15, 2021, there were six outbreaks at correctional facilities reported in the following counties: Granville; Greene; Halifax; Johnston; Pasquotank; and Wayne.

  • Staff have tested positive at Central Prison – Wake, Johnston Co, Eastern Correctional Institution and Maury CI, both in Greene Co.
  • In Butner, 80 have tested positive – 4 people incarcerated there have died

It is only a matter of time before these numbers grow exponentially.

On April 8, 2020, Disability Rights NC joined the NAACP, ACLU-NC, and 5 individuals to Petition the NC Supreme Court for an Order to the Governor and Secretary Hooks to release the most vulnerable before it is too late.

Learn more about DRNC’s criminal justice work.