Virus directives mean hundreds more NC prisoners go home

Published 10:54 am Friday, May 8, 2020

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By GARY D. ROBERTSON, Associated Press

Nearly 200 inmates within North Carolina’s prison system have been allowed to serve the rest of their sentences outside of prison to discourage the spread of COVID-19, state officials said Thursday.

The Department of Public Safety released figures showing how it is carrying out an initiative announced last month to allow some prisoners, including those at higher risk for the virus, to finish their punishments in local communities. Department Secretary Erik Hooks had said about 500 prisoners would be considered for the sentencing modification. He said those convicted of violent crimes wouldn’t qualify.

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The modification was among several Division of Prisons directives aimed at controlling the spread of the virus in what can be congested living facilities. The directives have resulted in several hundred prisoners being released sooner than originally planned.

Several prisoners and civil rights groups have sued to force the division to release more at-risk inmates. A judge gave the prison system until Friday to provide more information about how it’s keeping prisoners safe and what options they are pursuing to move more into the community.

The overall prison population has declined 5% since Mid-March, when coronavirus cases began rapidly increasing in the state. Fewer than 33,100 inmates were in the system as of Thursday, according to department data.

Rank-and-file prisoners continue to be released after completing their active sentences, the Division of Prisons stopped accepting prisoners from county jails last month, and criminal court cases are being delayed statewide.

More than 625 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19, with nearly 90% of them reported at Neuse Correctional Institution and the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women. Four prisoners have died from COVID-19 complications, the most recent one an inmate at the women’s facility who died at a hospital on Wednesday.

Overall, the number of COVID-19 cases statewide had grown to about 13,400 as of Thursday morning, with more than 500 deaths, according to state Department of Health and Human Services data.

DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said she remained supportive of Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order  to ease the state’s stay-at-home order Friday afternoon, even as the overall case total reflected a 639-case increase compared to Wednesday — the largest one-day increase so far. Cohen attributes the increase to a ramping up of COVID-19 testing. The number of positive cases as a percentage of tests has been declining, she said.

“As a whole, I think we are largely stable with our trends and metrics. We’ll continue to watch them. But I feel comfortable where we are in terms of moving forward,” Cohen told reporters.

The Department of Public Safety provided a chart showing well over half of the 192 prisoners allowed to leave prison under the sentencing modification program were already on work release or home leave.

Other prisoners released were men at least 65 years of age or women at least 50 who could be released this year or next. Some had underlying health problems. Three pregnant inmates also were released. Those released must live with a family member or in transitional housing.

In addition, prison officials have released 485 prisoners since March 1 by increasing the use of “discretionary sentence credits” to those reaching their minimum sentence release date between April and July, the department said. The offer doesn’t apply to those such as sex offenders and inmates who have assaulted prison staff.

Unemployment benefit applications in North Carolina for the week ending Saturday totaled more than 84,700, or 14% fewer than the week before, according to U.S. Employment and Training Administration. The application number has declined three weeks in a row.

The application data comes from the state Division of Employment Security, which said Thursday that it had received 1.07 million claims since mid-March and has paid $1.4 billion in federal and state benefits.

The claims don’t account for people who decline to seek benefits.

One such person is Cori Fisher of Louisburg, co-owner of a youth dance competition company. StarLand Productions had completed just one event in March before the state’s economy shut down, she said.

“I just want the chance to work again,” Fisher, 50, said this week at a rally in Raleigh to demand that Cooper fully cancel his stay-at-home order. “I want to make my own money. I don’t want somebody giving it to me.”