Local News

People in prison testing positive at rate higher than general public

Posted December 11, 2020 6:16 p.m. EST
Updated December 13, 2020 4:49 p.m. EST

North Carolina is one of a handful of states prioritizing people in prisons to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

In the state's vaccination plan, those incarcerated will receive the vaccine either in phases 1B or 2, depending on their age and if they have underlying health conditions. That's because they're at a much higher risk of contracting the virus.

More than one in every ten people in North Carolina state prisons has tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. That's significantly higher than the state's average, which is around 4 percent.

"When vaccine distribution begins, it must be done with care and must include education and assurances for incarcerated people, who understandably distrust a prison system that has failed to keep them safe during the pandemic," wrote Leah Kang, an attorney with the North Carolina ACLU, in an email to WRAL News. "More importantly, effective vaccination and achieving herd immunity will take many months. In the interim, people in NCDPS custody remain in danger of serious illness and death."

Twenty-eight people have died in custody due to COVID, according to the state.

More than 17,000 people have been released from custody during the course of the pandemic due to a variety of reasons including completing their sentence, according to Diane Kees, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety's Deputy Communications Chair.

Thomas Maher, Duke University's executive director of the Wilson Center for Science and Justice, was appointed as a court liaison to independently examine the ongoing legal opposition to the conditions in the state's prisons during the pandemic.

"Given the novelty of this immediate pandemic and the substantial risk to the state's population of incarcerated individuals, this court finds the circumstances ripe for the responsible utilization of a court liaison," wrote Vinston Rozier Jr., the Wake County superior court justice overseeing the lawsuit against the state.

This comes one day after Rozier ordered all prison staff members to be tested every 14 days.

"The practices that can slow the spread of COVID-19 – especially social distancing – are inherently impossible in prisons that are operating at or near capacity," wrote the joint group in the initial lawsuit filings in April.

The case's plaintiffs argued staff testing is imperative because the nature of their work – coming and going in and out of the facility and interacting with a variety of people increases the chances of introducing the virus to the prison population.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human services agrees, as first reported by Carolina Public Press.

According to that report, Megan Sredl, a DHHS epidemiologist, wrote to DPS staff, "Given that inmates are tested on arrival and generally spend at least 14 days in a processing center, the main way COVID-19 can be introduced into a facility is through staff."

As of Friday, the state reported more than 100 new positive COVID cases at prisons. Several state facilities have become hotspots for the virus with almost 800 active cases in 29 of the state's prisons.

"They face grave danger from the unconstitutional conditions of confinement in state prisons," wrote Kang.

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