The Sylva Herald, by Beth Lawrence

Residents across North Carolina with loved ones behind bars have expressed concern over COVID-19 outbreaks at prisons statewide.

Leaders in the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office took measures early on in an attempt to head off an outbreak at the detention center.

Prisons have seen hundreds of inmates test positive for COVID-19 leading to several deaths.

The state’s two largest outbreaks of COVID-19 were at Neuse Correctional Institution in Goldsboro where more than 460 inmates tested positive and two died, and at North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh where 90 had been diagnosed by May 4. Earlier this month, a lawsuit by the NAACP and other advocacy groups prompted a judge to order officials to release details of how they are addressing the spread of the disease in prisons.

Locally efforts to stem spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, begin as soon as a 911 call goes out to law enforcement.

“When feasible, we are issuing citations or obtaining criminal summons,” said Maj. Shannon Queen. 

In some cases arrests are unavoidable. When that happens every effort is made to keep sickness out of the jail.

“When arrests are made, the detention center pre-screens all incoming arrestees prior to entry into the jail using a questionnaire as well as temperature checks,” he said. “Any cause for concern generates a medical screening at Harris Hospital.”

Detention center employees also took steps to create a space where physical distancing is possible.

The directive to issue citations when possible has helped. Another benefit is that most court sessions were temporarily suspended. There have been no new convictions with sentences of time in jail. That in turn has not created new inmates needing to be housed.

“Those who accepted plea agreements early on during COVID-19 were handled, and several of them were removed from our population during the onset,” Queen said.

Once in the detention center, a detainee’s health is tracked by the jail’s medical service providers.

So far, no inmates have tested positive for COVID-19.

If a detainee should contract the disease, the jail has a plan in place to address it and limit the spread.

“We have a plan with the county Health Department and our contracted medical provider, but those specifics can’t be discussed as it partially relates to inmate and detention center security,” Queen said.

Another step to curtail the spread of the virus or to refrain from introducing it into the detention center population is changes to visitation. Previously, family and friends could enter the detention center and visit over a video chat system within the jail. Now, visitors and inmates can access the video feed remotely online to allow for visitation much the way office meetings are conducted over online meeting apps.

Additionally, all staff at the Sheriff’s Office have access to personal protective equipment and other means to clean and sanitize their work areas and patrol cars. There are also handwashing stations at the entrance to the facility.

One factor that contributed to the spread of the virus in prisons was a lack of testing.

“Inmates in the detention center have access to testing using the same protocols as the public based on a medical decision to test,” Queen said.

On May 15, Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, announced that guidelines for testing have been expanded to include people in congregate facilities such as prisons and county jails. Contact tracing will be used to decide whether an inmate can be tested.