SALISBURY, N.C. (WBTV) - New prisoners keep arriving at the Piedmont Correctional Institution in Salisbury, even as the prison grapples with an outbreak of COVID-19.
The North Carolina Department of Public Safety currently reports 41 active cases among inmates, with 34 inmates recovered from the virus.
Internal emails sent to staff at the prison show the prison has been dealing with an influx of cases since at least September 11, when staff at the prison’s intake unit were first told the prison was on ‘red status’, meaning there was an influx of cases.
A second email send on September 11 clarified the prison was at a lesser, yellow, status at the moment.
The facility was officially put on ‘red status’ on September 30, emails show.
But the rise in cases has not stopped inmates from being sent to the prison’s intake facility.
A roster of new inmates shows 30 new prisoners were sent to the facility on September 29 and 16 on October 6.
One new inmate who arrived on September 29 arrived with possible COVID-19 symptoms, an email shows.
“An offender that came in today from Moore County arrived with a fever,” a senior correctional case analyst at the prison wrote.
When the prison moved to ‘red status’ on September 30, it meant intake staff had to restrict some of their work activity processing new inmates.
“Diagnostic staff are not allowed to interact with these offenders until their isolation status has been cleared by medical,” a supervisor wrote. “Please make sure you are wearing your mask anytime you leave your office. If you need a state issued mask or a surgical mask please ask a Senior or myself.”
An associate warden seemed to downplay the fact that the prison was on 'red status’ in an email to staff on October 5.
“While we have operated with extreme caution and have been diligent to display extreme care for the safety and health of everyone that enters the facility, we can only be thankful that after almost 200 days of the COVID-19 pandemic we are now operating in RED status,” the email said.
“RED simply means we have experienced multiple cases of COVID-19, multiple cases of individuals with symptoms of COVID-19 or we have determined we must mitigate the spread by minimizing contact amongst staff, offenders and volunteers.”
The fact that the state prison system has continued to accept new inmates at a prison known to be in the middle of a COVID-19 outbreak was alarming to Leah Kang, a staff attorney at the ACLU of North Carolina.
“It is incredibly concerning to think that at a facility where there are high rates of infection, there are new people being transferred into that prison,” Kang said.
Kang is among a group of lawyers that filed a lawsuit against the prison system early in the pandemic to challenge the state’s efforts--or lack thereof--to protect inmates from the virus.
As a result, a judge has found the state is likely violating prisoners' rights by subjecting them to cruel and unusual punishment from not taking adequate steps to stop the virus from spreading through prisons.
“The current conditions, with so many people crammed so closely together in the prisons during this extremely dangerous and unprecedented pandemic, are cruel and unusual,” Kang said.
Kang said the most recent data supplied by the prison system as part of the lawsuit showed 43% of inmates tested at Piedmont CI had tested positive.
“That is, obviously, extremely high, it’s extremely concerning and, obviously, points to already a large-scale outbreak that puts incarcerated people and prison staff in danger,” the attorney said.
A spokesman for the prison system, John Bull, pushed back on the notion that new inmates may be subjected to additional danger by being sent to Piedmont CI.
“The prison system is an integral part of the North Carolina criminal justice system and as the courts reopened, the jails needed to send offenders to serve their court-ordered prison sentences and the Division of Prisons needed to make a place for them and continues to need to accept incoming offenders from the jails,” Bull said.
“These incoming offenders are all placed in medical quarantine in cohorts based on their date of arrival for 14 days when they get to Piedmont Correctional, one of six designated intake facilities. All of these new offenders promptly are tested for COVID-19. These offenders do not come in contact with the general prison population.”
Bull said there would be no benefit to halting the arrival of new prisoners due to an outbreak in the regular population.
But Kang said a danger for inmates will exist as long as the current number of prisoners are kept in such close conditions during the pandemic.
“We continue to be very alarmed and very concerned that there still remain such tight quarters and so many people packed into our state prisons,” she said.