Group asks Mecklenburg leaders to reduce jail population to prevent spread of virus behind bars

Updated: Mar. 17, 2020 at 3:47 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A group in Charlotte is asking for changes they say will help protect those behind bars from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The group, which includes lawyers, civil rights activists and citizens, is asking for local leaders to take six specific measures to prevent the spread of the virus in Mecklenburg County jails.

They held a press conference outside the Mecklenburg County Jail Tuesday evening to express their concerns.

“People in jail are unable to distance themselves from others and take the preventative measures that are necessary to prevent infection and protect the population,” a letter to City leaders read. “Worse, jails are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks because the underlying health conditions that can cause infection or exacerbate harm are very prevalent among incarcerated people.”

The letter claims the spread of COVID-19 would threaten “everyone incarcerated in a jail, along with their loved ones, jail staff, and the state’s public health infrastructure at large.”

The measures being asked of Mecklenburg County officials includes:

  • Releasing those being held pre-trial because they cannot afford bail on personal recognizance
  • Citing and releasing anyone charged with misdemeanors
  • Prioritizing the immediate release of people who are most vulnerable to the virus
  • Reducing release conditions and restrictions
  • Reducing the jail population by releasing anyone serving low-level convictions who are within six months of their release date
  • Ensuring care and hygiene for those who remain incarcerated

“These sensible steps will protect the public from outbreaks, while continued mass detention will not,” the letter read. “We know this pandemic presents a range of challenges, and we share your commitment to ensuring the community’s safety and health. We urge you to take necessary and immediate action to save lives.”

WBTV asked both CMPD and the Sheriff’s Office what they were doing to ensure safety and if they were working to actively reduce the jail policy.

CMPD said in a statement:

“The CMPD has been in constant communication with the Sheriff to ensure everyone’s health and safety in the event law enforcement has contact with a person who has been arrested and potentially infected with the virus. The CMPD and Sheriff’s Office is prioritizing the personal health of those arrested and arresting officers by immediately providing them the medical attention they need. Treatment and medical care of the person arrested, and the arresting officer’s wellbeing is the chief concern.”

The Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that they are doing everything they can to mitigate risks for inmates.

When asked specifically about reducing the jail population during the COVID-19 outbreak, the Sheriff’s Office said “Most officers utilize their discretion wisely and issue citations in lieu of arrest whenever possible."

You can read the letter and recommendations below from the community group:

Effective on Monday, March 16, visitation was suspended at all North Carolina prisons to minimize the health risks from the spread of coronavirus.

Recommendations made on March 12 included restricting visitors for residential establishments including correctional facilities.

Dozens of other states have taken similar measures in the past few days.

The full statement from the Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Office is below:

"MCSO has taken steps to slow the spread and mitigate the risk of COVID 19 in Mecklenburg County Detention Centers. Our maintenance service provider has ramped up cleaning and sanitation efforts in common areas and on touch surfaces throughout our facilities and we have encouraged all MCSO personnel to follow the CDC guidelines. Visitation has been suspended and non-essential volunteers and programming has also been cancelled to minimize the internal movement inside the detention centers. There may be an increase in screening efforts to include the screening of employees working inside our detention centers and the deployment of personal protective gear if we start to see confirmed cases inside of our detention centers.

Law enforcement as a whole in this community makes a concerted effort to utilize detention only when it’s absolutely necessary. Most officers utilize their discretion wisely and issue citations in lieu of arrest whenever possible. Sheriff McFadden supports the law and would certainly be in favor of releasing anyone in Sheriff’s Office custody that has meet the court ordered conditions of their release, whether those conditions are defined through electronic monitoring, lower bail amounts or other conditions that allow for a lawful release."

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