North Carolina reports first death of state prisoner

Published 3:06 pm Thursday, April 23, 2020

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By GARY D. ROBERTSON, Associated Press

Officials on Wednesday, April 22 announced the first COVID-19-related death of an offender inside North Carolina’s state prison system, reinforcing the dangers of the virus within a population behind bars in which hundreds have tested positive.

The Division of Prisons said a prisoner at the medium-security Pender Correctional institution in Burgaw died at an unnamed hospital on Tuesday, nearly two weeks after he started showing viral symptoms. A positive test came back a few days later and he was hospitalized on April 13, a division release said.

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The agency wouldn’t release the prisoner’s name, citing family privacy and the confidentiality of prison records, but did say the offender was in his late 50s and had preexisting conditions complicated by the new coronavirus.

“This is a sad day, as all human life is precious,” Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee said at a media briefing. “We are continuing to do everything in our power to stop this virus from spreading further in our facilities.” The state employee health insurance plan unveiled an initiative later Wednesday to soon test more than 16,000 correctional officers and other workers from the state’s 56 prison facilities.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the death is among the 242 overall COVID-19 deaths that had been reported by state health officials as of Wednesday morning. That’s an increase of more than 20 compared to Tuesday. More than 7,200 positive cases have been recorded since the outbreak and about 430 people are now hospitalized.

At least nine other state prisons have reported positive COVID-19 cases among those serving sentences, according to division data. Most of those cases are at the dormitory-style Neuse Correctional Institution in Goldsboro, where more than 440 of the 725 prisoners have tested positive.

Last week, about 250 Neuse prisoners had tested positive. Ninety-eight percent of the offenders testing positive there are asymptomatic, Ishee said. In an unusual move, the prison system decided to test all Neuse prisoners after a couple of them were diagnosed a few weeks ago. For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, it can cause severe illness or even death.

Prison leaders have extended a suspension of visitations and outside work assignments, as well as the receipt of inmates from county jails. More soap and dozens of disinfectant machines also have been sent to prisons. Some nonviolent offenders are being allowed to leave prison early and complete their sentence under community supervision. Ishee said there are currently no plans to do more mass testing within the prison system, citing recommendations by its health experts.

The Neuse outbreak forced correction leaders to close a Johnston County prison and move its prisoners elsewhere so Johnston’s guards could relieve workers at Neuse, where more than a dozen have been infected. Ishee said he’s pleased to hear that the North Carolina State Health Plan will carry out the testing of prison employees, who he said held challenging jobs even before COVID-19. The plan, overseen by State Treasurer Dale Folwell, obtained 20,000 tests from a Raleigh-based lab company.

“When faced with anxiety and uncertainty in life, there’s only one way out — to give more. These officers are doing that and now it’s our time,” said Folwell, who himself is recovering from COVID-19.

The outbreak has also led to deaths within the federal prison system in North Carolina. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons said five prisoners with COVID-19 at its medium-security prison in Butner have died.

North Carolina and local health officials have intensified their efforts to control outbreaks in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, as well as at food processing facilities. At least 87 deaths are associated with nursing home cases, state health officials said.

Five food processing plants are experiencing multiple cases of COVID-19 among employees, according to officials.

A spokeswoman for Delaware-based poultry company Mountaire Farms confirmed on Wednesday that workers at their Siler City and Lumber Bridge operations have tested positive but declined to say how many were affected at each. The company has stepped up its cleaning processes and requires employees to wear face masks and get their temperatures taken, spokeswoman Catherine Bassett said. All hourly employees also have received pay raises, she added.



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