Today, a stay-at-home order issued by Governor Cooper goes into effect, mandating that everyone stays home in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. But thousands of North Carolinians are not able to take the proper precautions, practice social distancing, or join their families in staying home because they are incarcerated — locked in a cage and at high risk of contracting COVID-19.
Our prisons are ill-equipped to handle the likely outbreak of COVID-19. They are dangerously overcrowded and lack adequate healthcare or access to basic hygiene like soap and warm water. They are severely understaffed, including nurses and doctors. Just last week, the governor told sheriffs across the state and other officials that our prison system has zero ventilators at the state’s two medical facilities within our corrections system. Anyone who needs to use one will have to be transferred to a local hospital in our communities.
Just as Governor 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 at-risk people in our prisons.
This situation is dire and urgent not only for the people who are incarcerated but for the people who work every day in these facilities including correctional officers and other staff. In order to stop the spread, the governor must act now to reduce the prison population and release the most vulnerable to infection including people over the age of 60, people who are pregnant, and people with underlying health conditions.
Releasing older adults and people with underlying health conditions who present a low public safety risk will reduce overcrowding, reduce the spread of the deadly virus, and free up health care services to properly address the needs of those who remain inside the prisons. It will also allow the staff in the prisons, who are already stretched thin, to better respond to the mounting crisis.
A prison sentence should not become a death sentence. For the sake of our communities, to every extent possible, our prisons should not needlessly keep people incarcerated who are especially vulnerable to infectious disease. Our leaders must immediately take steps to release those identified by the CDC as most vulnerable to COVID-19. Every day that government officials do not act is another day that lives are put at risk.