NC’s prisons have continued transferring inmates, holding worship services during coronavirus pandemic

Coronavirus cases in state prisons

MORGANTON, N.C. (WBTV) – The North Carolina prison system continued transporting inmates between facilities as recently as Thursday, even as positive cases of the coronavirus were being confirmed with inmates and staff.

By Thursday, prison officials announced four inmates and four staff members had tested positive for the virus.

Internal prison documents obtained by WBTV show that on that same day inmates were still being moved between facilities, some for seemingly non-critical reasons.

A roster of inmates being moved in and out of Foothill Correctional Institution in Morganton, N.C. shows a total of 13 inmates were moved in and out of that prison on Thursday: one for a medical appointment, three to be released, two to be processed, two for age and five inmates for duty.

Multiple prison employees confirmed to WBTV that being transferred ‘for duty’ means an inmate is being moved to work inside that prison or attend an educational program.

The one inmate that was supposed to be coming to Foothills CI to be released on Thursday was coming from Neuse CI. A prison employee told WBTV the bus carrying that inmate was turned around and did not make it to the prison after they found someone on the bus had a fever.

Later on Thursday, the prison system announced two inmates at Neuse CI had tested positive for the coronavirus.

A spokesman for the prison system, John Bull, refused to answer questions for this story, after first indicating someone could be made available for an interview.

But in a statement, Bull said prisoners were only being transferred for a list of critical reasons:

  • High priority movements.
  • Offenders who must be transported to conform with other judicial orders.
  • Offenders who need to be transported to higher custody level prisons for behavioral issues, especially when assaultive in nature.
  • Offenders who need to be transported for medical attention that cannot be handled by the facility where housed or within prison hospital settings.
A transfer sheet shows inmates being moved between NC prisons
A transfer sheet shows inmates being moved between NC prisons (Source: Public record)

But Bull did not respond to follow-up questions from WBTV pointing out move sheets obtained by the station shows many offenders were being transferred for duty, which does not fall into any of the four categories outlined in his statement.

For example, last Thursday, March 26, 14 inmates were transferred to Foothills CI from nearby Piedmont CI in Salisbury, N.C. All of the inmates were marked “receive for duty.”

Two days earlier on that same week, March 24, ten inmates had been transferred from Piedmont CI to Foothills CI marked “receive for duty.”

The move sheets from that week show other offenders were moved to be processed into or released from custody.

“The Division of Prisons is an important component of the North Carolina criminal justice system,” Bull’s statement said. “Offenders need to be transported for quite a number of public safety and prison operation reasons.”

WBTV’s investigation into this issue began after receiving multiple calls from prison workers concerned about inmates still being transferred even as people were being asked to stay home and not travel by state leaders.

Ardis Watkins, who heads the State Employees Association of North Carolina, said movement throughout the state’s prison system is a top concern of the prison employees she’s heard from.

“We don’t think that any inmate should move around right now,” Watkins said. “The folks we have who work in the prison systems are telling us it’s just got to be shut down, we’ve got to lock these prisons down.”

Watkins said she and her staff have had productive conversations with Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee but she would still like to see some action taken to better protect staff and inmates.

“There are still big issues that I don’t know what the answers are going to be,” Watkins said. “But if we don’t find some quick, there’s going to be some lives lost at the end of this.”

At a press conference on Thursday, Ishee said he and his staff was doing all it could to protect inmates and staff from the virus.

“We are continuing to take additional safety steps to help preempt and to reduce the opportunity for the virus to spread throughout the prison system,” Ishee said at the briefing.

But internal documents obtained by WBTV show inmates were still able to gather for worship services in groups of up to 50, even as officials asked churches across the state to stop holding services.

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