FILE - Prison, jail, inmate, corrections

(The Center Square) – A coalition of advocates is calling on North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and state officials to take action to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the state’s prisons.

The state’s American Civil Liberties Union, the Duke Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility, Community Success Initiative, Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform, Disability Rights North Carolina, Emancipate NC, Forward Justice, North Carolina Justice Center and North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services all sent letters Thursday to Cooper, the Department of Public Safety, the Conference of District Attorneys, the Association of Chiefs of Police and the Sheriffs' Association.

They are asking officials to limit the number of people entering the system to protect the health of those currently incarcerated. 

“People in prisons, jails, and detention centers are uniquely vulnerable in this moment of a public health emergency,” ACLU of North Carolina Interim Executive Director Chantal Stevens said. “People in confinement have no control over their own movement and are held in close quarters without adequate resources for hygiene, creating the perfect conditions for the dangerous spread of COVID-19.”

Local governments and other states already have taken steps to reduce arrests and limit prison and jail intake to fend off the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Cooper has ordered dine-in restaurants around the state shuttered and has closed schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has warned against the gatherings of 10 or more people and recommends that people stay 6 feet apart from each other.

Most people who have COVID-19 develop only mild symptoms. But some people, including the elderly and those with other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal.

“Just as Gov. Cooper has taken bold action to limit public gatherings, he must also take bold action to reduce the number of vulnerable people held in our state’s prisons by utilizing his clemency powers and expediting release and parole to the elderly and chronically ill in our prisons,” Forward Justice Co-Director Daryl Atkinson said.

It is unclear whether anyone within the state’s prison system is among the 97 positive cases of COVID-19 in North Carolina.

The Georgia Department of Corrections (DPC) announced Wednesday an employee at one of its 34 state prisons tested positive for the disease. Georgia DPC has taken several precautions to keep the COVID-19 out of its prisons.

Georgia has suspended visits until April 10, enhanced cleaning, sanitizing and medical screening protocols, and allowed only essential movement throughout the prisons, among other things.

The advocates want North Carolina officials to ensure inmates have soap, water and medical attention to prevent the disease. They also are asking prisons to allow quarantined prisoners to get exercise, read and speak to loved ones.

“It is not a matter of if, but when, the coronavirus breaks out in our prisons,” said Daniel Bowes, director of the Fair Chance Criminal Justice Project at the North Carolina Justice Center.

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for three years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.