Hooks and Cooper

North Carolina Department of Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks speaks as Gov. Roy Cooper looks on during a briefing on North Carolina’s coronavirus pandemic Monday, April 13, 2020, at the N.C. Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh. Both men are named in lawsuit demanding better prevention of COVID-19 outbreaks in the state's prisons.

(The Center Square) – As North Carolina state prisons face pressure to provide proof of COVID-19 safety measures, State Treasurer Dale Folwell and State Health Plan officials announced Monday they no longer will provide direct testing for prison staff.

Folwell said he secured the more than 20,000 COVID-19 tests he announced on April 22 would be administered, but the state does not have the logistics and personnel to perform the tests.

“We’re disappointed that we could not work out the details on how to go directly to the facilities outside of the fence to test,” Folwell said. “However, we fully understand the dilemma of the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice.”

The North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, Disability Rights North Carolina, ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation, four prisoners and an inmate’s wife filed a lawsuit April 8 against Gov. Roy Cooper and public safety officials that demanded the release of certain prisoners and for COVID-19 prevention measures to be implemented.

Folwell's testing announcement came three days after Superior Court Judge Vinston Rozier ordered state officials to provide statements outlining the steps they have taken to contain the spread of COVID-19 at the facilities where some of the defendants reside.

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety has since released some prisoners who are high risk and others who are near their release dates.

Among other things, DPS officials said they have suspended visitation, work release and transfers; increased sanitization; enhanced medical screening protocols; and have limited movement throughout the prisons.

However, defendant Christina Rhodes, whose husband lives at Wilkes Correctional Center, told the court inmates with work assignments still can travel from dorm to dorm.

The defendants in the case also said dorms are overcrowded, in some cases holding as many as 60 people who must share one restroom.

Sandara Kay Howell, an inmate at Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women, said the hand sanitizer she received does not contain any alcohol, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends.

Mary Pollard, executive director of North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services Inc., told the court she received numerous calls about inadequate hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies and a lack of masks. 

The Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice (ACJJ) has paid for and administered large-scale testing at at least two of its facilities. At that time, testing also was made available to staff.

As of Monday, DPS reported 624 COVID-19 cases among inmates. Reports of employee cases, which were being self-reported, have been removed from the DPS dashboard.

Testing for plan members will be covered under the State Health Plan, and a cost-share waiver for COVID-19-related treatments also is available to members through June 1, officials said.

“Unlike other state agencies, [Department of Public Safety] has unique safety and operational hurdles that could not be overcome by the State Health Plan’s desire to directly test these state employees,” Folwell said. “We know that the leadership at ACJJ wants to act as quickly as possible and their concern for the welfare of their employees is tantamount.”

Dee Jones, executive director of State Health Plan, said they still plan to assist with testing when a “viable” method that “meets DPS’ requirements is available.”

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.