The Pulse

During COVID-19 crisis, officials begin reviewing jail population for early release

By: - March 20, 2020 4:46 pm
Image: Adobe Stock

North Carolina criminal justice officials have begun reviewing the number of people in jail and releasing nonviolent inmates as a precaution to protect against COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, which has become a pandemic.

Reports from across the state indicate that Wake, Durham, Alamance, Orange, Chatham, Forsyth, Guilford, Mecklenburg and Buncombe counties have started releasing individuals from jails or delaying intermittent weekend sentences to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in facilities. Other counties could be doing the same, but those listed have been confirmed.

Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry said Friday that while community residents are rightly heeding the advice of health officials to stay home and avoid crowds to the extent possible, social distancing for incarcerated individuals is not possible.

For the health and safety of both those incarcerated and employees at the Durham County Detention Facility, Deberry said in a news release that she has worked with defense attorneys and judges to identify people who could be safely released through a modification of release conditions or disposition of their case. Specifically, they have worked to identify individuals who do not pose a public safety risk, people who are over the age of 60, and people with health conditions that put them at high risk of serious illness due to COVID-19.

Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry

“We are also working with local law enforcement to ensure that only those few individuals who do present a danger to our community are brought to the detention facility during this emergency. We ask that defense attorneys notify us if they represent a client who is in custody in Durham and at high-risk of illness.”

The inmate population dropped from 369 a week ago to 332 today, though spokesperson Sarah Willets noted it’s possible some of the inmates could have been released by bonding out or completing a sentence independent of the current push to decarcerate. She didn’t have an exact figure of how many people had been released per that effort.

The News & Observer reported between 2007 and 2018, the average annual jail population at the Durham County Detention Center fell from 629 to 498. It fell to 366 in April 2019.

Jails and prisons are seen as particularly high risk when it comes to COVID-19 because of the close contact inmates have with each other and their limited access to cleaning and sanitizing supplies and medical care.[bctt tweet=”We are concerned about anyone who is incarcerated in any facility across the state. They are incredibly dangerous places at this moment.” username=”NCPolicyWatch”]

“We are concerned about anyone who is incarcerated in any facility across the state,” said Leah Kang, a staff attorney with the ACLU of North Carolina. “They are incredibly dangerous places at this moment.”

The ACLU of NC along with a coalition of organizations called Thursday for state officials to take action to protect incarcerated people, corrections employees and the general public by reducing the use of imprisonment. They sent letters to Gov. Roy Cooper, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police and the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association.

“We’ve shut down schools, we’ve shut down universities, we need to decarcerate,” Kang said in a phone interview Friday.


Jail facilities are under local control and usually run by counties and or sheriffs’ offices. The populations there are usually shorter term and pre-trial, which means most inmates have been accused but not convicted of a crime. Prisons, by and large, owned and operated by the state or federal government, and most of the populations have been convicted of felony charges.

Leah Kang

Kang said advocates are concerned about populations in both prisons and jails and are asking for relief for both, but she noted a few difference that could put inmates in jails at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.

Jail populations are more transient, meaning more people are coming in and out of facilities, increasing the risk of exposure, and counties are usually less equipped than state and federal governments when it comes to resources because of the shorter-term nature of inmate stays.

Kang was hesitant to point out the differences, though, because COVID-19 could be a death sentence for any incarcerated individuals whether they are in a jail or a prison. She added, however, advocates believe jails should be releasing all pre-trial populations unless there is an identified harm to a specific person that would be exacerbated by their release.

“In the midst of this crisis, there really should not be anyone languishing in jail because the can’t afford bond,” she said. “We need to get people home.”

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said Friday her office is working diligently to reduce the number of individuals in jails “while also ensuring that we are maintaining public safety and protecting victims’ rights under the new constitutional amendment.”

“We have notified law enforcement of our preference that individuals be cited as opposed to arrested when appropriate,” she stated in an email.

She added that they are continuing to operate four courts each day to continue to resolve cases involving individuals who are in custody.

We are operating four courts each day for the purpose of continuing to resolve cases of individuals in custody. Those cases include first appearances daily for both misdemeanor and felony cases (as per usual).

As individuals in custody have their first appearances before a judge, we are asking for unsecured bonds in low level non-violent offenses,” Freeman said. “We are working with the Wake County Sheriff’s Office to identify people who are in custody awaiting trial whose bonds can be unsecured. We will continue to review cases of people in our local jail to determine if release is appropriate.”

She said her office is also awaiting a report from the prisons on incarcerated individuals aged 60 and older to review to see if any of them would be appropriate for early release.


Some counties, like Alamance, have delayed all intermittent sentences until May 1. Those individuals, who serve their sentences intermittently on weekends or weekdays were ordered there not to report for jail before then.

Attorneys with the North Carolina Justice Center’s Fair Chance Criminal Justice project said they are seeing a large range of jail policies being implemented, and while the efforts are laudable in a time of panic, many are only a first step to preventing and controlling a COVID-19 outbreak in jail and prison facilities. The NC Justice Center is the parent organization for NC Policy Watch.

“Across counties, law enforcement, district attorneys and judges should prioritize the safety of incarcerated people and staff working inside of jails by limiting charges to non-arrestable offenses and issuing citations in lieu of arrest, moving for immediate release of all people held on secured bond except in instances of high safety risk, and suspending all intermittent sentences for people on probation,” wrote Quisha Mallette, a project attorney, in an email.

Daryl Atkinson

The North Carolina Division of Prisons suspended visitation to all the state’s prisons Monday to minimize the health risks from the spread of COVID-19. Todd Ishee, Commissioner of Prisons, also announced a number of screening measures they’ll implement as a precaution.

Daryl Atkinson, Co-Director of Forward Justice, called on Gov. Roy Cooper to do more for the state prison population.

“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 chronically ill in our prisons,” he said. “For the sake of our communities, to every extent possible our prisons should not needlessly keep people incarcerated who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. The lives of these people are quite literally in the governor’s hands.”

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