Advocate calls prisons a COVID-19 ‘incubator,’ pushes for some to serve remaining sentences elsewhere

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, as of Monday, is reporting COVID-19 outbreaks at 19 correctional facilities, leading advocates to call for changes to keep prisoners safe.

“There’s no mechanism or meaningful way in which incarcerated people can socially distance themselves to take steps to prevent spreading, so it’s an incubator in these prisons. And the only meaningful way to address that incubator is to decarcerate or at least release some people who have demonstrated rehabilitation, or on low level offenses serving time that don’t pose a risk to society,” said attorney Jamie Lau.

Lau heads the Duke University Wrongful Convictions Clinic. He said the nearly 1,700 positive cases and 26 deaths within the prison system don’t have to increase.

“They have a mechanism called Extended Limits of Confinement which allows them to allow people who are serving time to serve out the remainder of the sentence requirement in a setting outside of prison,” Lau explained.

“For example, in a family member’s home. So, the department has broad authority to take steps to allow individuals to serve out periods of time with alternative circumstances.”

On June 7, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety modified its criteria to be considered for early release due to the pandemic. That includes inmates who are 65 years old or older and have a release date in 2022 or sooner.

It also includes those who are 60-64 years old with underlying health conditions and have a release date in 2020 or 2021. Pregnant inmates may also be considered.

It doesn’t include offenders who have been convicted of crimes against a person. An example is Ronnie Long, who is represented by the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic.

“So, at this point in time, holding him is simply cruel on the part of the State of North Carolina, and it should be an easy fix for the governor to utilize his powers to grant clemency to protect his health while we prove his innocence in court,” Lau said.

Long has already served 44 years for a rape conviction. He’s waiting on a ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that could free him because of mishandled evidence by police.

Lau is asking for clemency and asked Gov. Roy Cooper for an early release back in March. That hasn’t happened, so Long remains at the Albemarle Correctional Institution. At least 75 inmates have tested positive for coronavirus there, according to the NCDHHS.

“It’s time to review those sentences, which will serve to the benefit of reducing racism that has caused the mass incarceration in the state, as well as reducing the threat of the spread of COVID-19 by creating a system that has the ability to take steps to social distance and prevent people from being in close contact with one another where the pandemic or virus spreads,” Lau said.

NCDPS officials said they are “continuing our efforts to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 in our correctional facilities and are reviewing the offenders who fall within the currently identified criteria. We will continue to assess the criteria as needed.”

NCDPS on June 18 initiated a plan to test all offenders within the state prison system. The plan called for Albemarle Correctional Institution to be the first.

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