CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Michael Gordon / Charlotte Observer) - The Mecklenburg County Jail has received a shipment of 50,000 protective surgical masks, which it began distributing to jail personnel on Monday.
The masks are designed to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Only a limited number of the jail’s almost 1,400 inmates will receive them, said Dejah Gilliam, public information manager for the Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Office.
The jail ordered the protective gear on April 1 at a cost of $27,500, she said. More than 10,300 were given out on Monday.
Wearing the masks is optional, but Gilliam said jail staffers are being “strongly encouraged” to use them “especially during times that they’re interacting with others.”
The jail’s employees are considered a bigger threat to contract the disease, COVID-19, because they circulate in a broad area outside the jail, she said. Inmates, on the other hand, mostly remain in the building where they face more limits on their movement and interactions, Gilliam said.
Inmates who may have been exposed to the coronavirus, those who are considered at “high risk,” and people booked into jail who show symptoms will receive protective masks, she said.
As of Monday morning, state officials have reported more than 1,200 cases of COVID-19 and 29 deaths in Mecklenburg County.
No cases have turned up among Mecklenburg jail inmates, though a jailer and a nurse at the facility have tested positive for COVID-19. As of Monday, Gilliam said, no inmates were being quarantined.
The jail has been a focal point for a coalition of lawyers and community activists fearing an outbreak of the disease among inmates. It is the largest local detention center in North Carolina.
However, while cases of COVID-19 have been increasing in state and federal prisons in North Carolina, the Mecklenburg jail has proven far safer. Gilliam says the jail, unlike the prisons, keeps inmates in single-occupancy cells. It has also banned visitors and the jail conducts daily health screens for employees and new inmates.
As part of its prevention protocols, inmates can eat in their cells, Gilliam said. If they choose to take meals in the common areas they must socially distance themselves.
Similar precautions are in place in the recreation yard, where jailers have temporarily removed basketballs and soccer balls, Gilliam said. Officers limit the number of inmates in the yard at any one time to better maintain safe distances between them.
SOME INMATES RELEASED
In one of a series of steps aimed at lowering health risks in the jail, Mecklenburg County judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed on a earlier plan to release low-level offenders or those with a higher risk of complications from COVID-19.
Chief Mecklenburg District Court Judge Elizabeth Trosch last month also handed down an order temporarily blocking arrests of most types of misdemeanors.
That has not stopped a series of protests by a coalition of lawyers and community activists who say there are too many arrests for low-level charges. According to jail statistics obtained by the Charlotte Observer, 21 new inmates were booked on Sunday while 12 were released.
The jail held 1,392 inmates on Monday morning, according to the sheriff’s office, down more than 200 since efforts to control the population began in mid-March.
Some of the biggest decreases have occurred in the number of prisoners being held before trial on misdemeanor charges. That number stood at 68 on Monday, down about 30 percent from mid-March.
Almost 64 percent of the inmates, or 889, are being held on state charges; 35 percent, or 484, face federal charges or sentencing.
Both groups have been impacted by the pandemic. State and federal trials have been delayed to at least June 1. Meanwhile, federal prisons have placed the transfer of new inmates on hold until May 18, meaning federal inmates face longer stays in the jail.