The North Carolina prison system suspended virtually all visitation amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. State prisons stopped all nonessential visitors and limited prisoner transportation in an effort to …
The North Carolina prison system suspended virtually all visitation amidst the COVID-19 outbreak.
State prisons stopped all nonessential visitors and limited prisoner transportation in an effort to mitigate spread and exposure to the coronavirus, according to John Bull, communications officer with the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. State prisons also implemented testing procedures for both inmates and employees who show symptoms of the virus.
“This is a rapidly spreading disease that’s quite infectious with significant challenges to people in advancing years and underlining medical issues,” Bull said. “Prisons are a closed population: there are not a lot of people getting in and not a lot of people getting out as a general rule. There are tight spaces which makes social distancing a difficult thing to achieve. Any sort of infectious disease can spread very rapidly in a prison setting. These are especially challenging issues for us to deal with.”
DPS allowed legal visitation and pastoral care to continue, but all visitors to any state prison facility must undergo a medical screening prior to entry. Anyone showing symptoms of COVID-19 such as fever or respiratory distress will be turned away.
“Those men and women who are under our care are our top priorities,” said Bull. “We’re doing everything we can to keep them as safe as possible as we work through this crisis, nationally. If someone has symptoms or they’ve just returned from Italy, thank you very much but we’ll set up a phone interview for you.”
Although no one in the state prison system has tested positive for the virus so far, Bull said there are procedures in place to treat anyone who develops symptoms and mitigate exposure.
If an inmate comes down with a fever higher than 100 degrees and displays respiratory issues, medical personnel will immediately place a mask on them and isolate the individual from the general population. Staff plan to treat the person and investigate the cause of the illness.
“You can call it quarantined, but really in effect they’re isolated from this point with others who may have similar or the same symptoms,” Bull said. “This also is the flu season, so every time someone comes down with the sniffles, fever and respiratory issues doesn’t necessarily mean they have COVID-19. It could just be the simple flu. We test those people and those who are needing COVID-19 testing take the test and it’s sent for analysis.”
The Department of Public Safety also scaled down its transportation schedule. In addition to medically scanning every person getting on and off a prison transport, the agency established parameters as to who needed to be moved from one place to another.
The department plans to continue transporting people from local jails to state facilities, as well as those with medical conditions that can’t be treated by prison medical staff. Prisoners legally cannot be held past their release date and inmates who violate behavior policies will be held accountable.
“If somebody assaults our staff and they’re in minimal custody, they’re not going to stay in minimal custody just because of COVID-19,” said Bull. “We will check to see that they are medically able to transport and we will transport them to the higher custody prison. That’s an operational security issue. If someone assaults our staff, we’re not going to stand for it and there will be repercussions. They’re not going to duck it just because of COVID-19 fears.”
Public Safety contracted Correction Enterprises, which produces 1,100 cases of disinfectant in spray bottle form daily, and provided a non-alcohol-based hand cleanser for staff and offenders at all facilities.
“We’re taking this very seriously,” Bull said. “This is a very serious situation and we’re going to take every step we can to deny admission to the prison system of the COVID-19 virus. Harnett is doing a great job. John Godfrey is a pro who has been there a while and really knows his business.”
Prison employees with COVID-19 symptoms, Bull said, will be sent home to consult with their physician regarding testing and care.
Eliot Duke can be reached at email@example.com or at 910-230-2038.