Social distancing impossible in overcrowded jails: DRNC urges immediate action
North Carolina jails are chronically overcrowded, making social distancing impossible. Jail overcrowding breaks down the basic function of the jails, according to the DOJ National Institute for Corrections. In 2018, 20% of reporting NC counties stated that their jails were operating at or above capacity. 60% of NC counties are operating their jails at capacity levels, which the DOJ states “jeopardize[s] the safety and well-being” of everyone in the jails, staff included. Inspection reports from 2019 give no indication that jail overcrowding has decreased.
“An overcrowded jail is a dangerous jail – especially during a global pandemic, when overcrowding makes every person in the jail, including staff, susceptible to infection. As the virus spreads and staff levels drop due to disease or quarantine, the perilous conditions that overcrowding causes will only get worse” writes Disability Rights North Carolina (DRNC) CEO Virginia Knowlton Marcus.
Almost none of the jails in NC have the capability to treat COVID-19 patients. Jails are not a closed system; an outbreak of coronavirus in a jail will move to the surrounding community. Rapid virus transmission in jails will take a significant toll on community healthcare resources, as jails transfer sick people to local facilities for care. An outbreak in a jail will also likely increase community infection rates as staff leave the facility and interact with the surrounding community.
“Reducing the jail population is the best defense against a deadly outbreak of COVID-19 in local jails,” states DRNC attorney Luke Woollard. “Many people incarcerated in NC jails are being held pre-trial because they lack the financial resources to pay their secured bond. Many more are serving time for non-violent misdemeanors. Nearly all could be released from jails and monitored using systems and technology already in place, such as parole/probation officers and ankle monitors. This technology allows law enforcement agencies to keep track of pre-trial people charged with an offense.”
Supervising attorney Susan Pollitt writes, “No person should be forced to risk death as a result of an arrest or misdemeanor conviction, or because they cannot afford bail. Entire communities should not see infection rates skyrocket as overcrowded jails become COVID-19 hot spots.”
Sheriffs, District Attorneys, Judges and other stakeholders must take swift and humane action to reduce jail population across the state, with a focus on individuals who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 and/or placed in chronically overcrowded jails. In county jail facilities where it is nearly impossible to maintain the social distancing and hygiene that is crucial to stave off infection, decarceration is the best defense against an uncontrollable outbreak.
Some counties have already taken steps to reduce their jail populations through release and reducing arrests. We urge counties across North Carolina to do the same.