MORGANTON, N.C. (WBTV) - A North Carolina prison facility is on ‘red status’ after a spike in COVID-19 cases that prison officials have traced back to inmates who work in a laundry facility operated by Correction Enterprises.
The minimum custody unit at Foothills Correctional Institution in Morganton was placed on ‘red status’ on Monday, which indicates a growing number of COVID-19 cases at the facility. Despite that, inmates from the minimum custody unit have continued to go to work at Broughton Laundry and in the kitchen at the higher-custody unity at Foothills, WBTV has learned.
State prison leaders have said work released stopped in the wake of the pandemic. An operations briefing sent to prison staff across the state on Monday said the suspension of work release was being extended into September.
But that does not apply to inmates who work for the prison, either performing jobs inside prisons themselves or for Corrections Enterprises.
“Effective immediately, FMCU is on RED stratus. Offenders will continue to work in the kitchen and laundry (they are like us, essential workers), Foothills CI Warden Teresa Jardon said in an email to prison staff on Monday, August 24. " While on Red Status, FMCU will not be receiving any transfers from processing facilities and obviously, no offenders will be transferring out (with the exception of restrictive housing).”
In an emailed statement sent in response to questions for this story, a Prisons spokesman confirmed the inmates were still being sent to work and said the current COVID-19 cases that prompted the unity to be placed on ‘red status’ stemmed from the Broughton Laundry.
“While the entire population of Foothills Correctional was tested for COVID-19 on July 16 and the entire offender population tested negative for the virus, three Correction Enterprise employees at Broughton Laundry subsequently tested positive for the virus and are off the job,” Prisons spokesman John Bull said. “As a result of those positive COVID-19 tests, the laundry facility was thoroughly sanitized and the offenders who work at the laundry facility were tested for COVID-19 on August 14. Four of them tested positive for COVID-19. They were asymptomatic.”
“Because of those test results, the minimum camp was placed on ‘red’ status and the four COVID-positive offenders immediately were separated from the rest of their cohort and placed in medical isolation, where they remain. The housing unit for this cohort of offenders then was thoroughly sanitized.”
Bull said the inmates who work at Broughton Laundry live and work as a cohort separate from other inmates. He also said they are the only inmates who are currently positive at the facility.
Bull also said inmates who work at jobs inside the prison are not considered work release and, therefore, the suspension of the work release program does not apply to them.
News of the inmates continuing to work outside of a prison, even as new cases of COVID-19 are confirmed, comes as the ACLU of North Carolina continues to challenge the North Carolina Department of Public Safety of the way it is caring for inmates during the pandemic.
Leah Kang, a staff attorney at the ACLU of North Carolina said the news is troubling.
“That is very concerning, given what we know about asymptomatic transmission, given what we know about how easily the virus can get in to congregate settings like prisons,” Kang said. “All it would take is one case for infections to spread quickly like wildfire. It has happened already in North Carolina state prisons and the danger of that happening again here is high.”
A judge has already ruled that the state is likely violating prisoners’ constitutional rights in the ACLU’s case and, in a later ruling, said the state was not following his orders.
The ACLU has filed a second motion with the judge seeking to further force the state to follow his orders to better protect inmates from COVID-19 while in custody. A hearing on that motion is set for Friday.