Judge names expert to scrutinize NC prison virus response

North Carolina

(AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A judge agreed on Friday to name a third-party expert to scrutinize the COVID-19 response within North Carolina’s prison system, which along with the rest of the state is experiencing a surge in cases and hospitalizations.

Ruling again in ongoing litigation about health and safety within prisons during the pandemic, Superior Court Judge Vince Rozier said he’s worried about the pressure the coronavirus is now placing upon correctional institutions.

A key task of the special master he picked — Thomas Maher of Duke University — will be to review a home-confinement program, which could mean more inmates at higher risk for COVID-19 complications will serve their terms in safer settings.

Rozier’s upcoming written order also will direct the Department of Public Safety to have all correctional workers who come in contact with prisoners be tested every two weeks.

The prison system temporarily closed three units over the past two weeks to handle staffing challenges, brought on in part by the upward swing in positive cases and the medical care prisoners need. Meanwhile, 370 correctional staff who tested positive for COVID-19 were out of work Friday, the department said, up 50 from last week.

“There is a concern that there is a reduced ability within DPS to address some of the growing needs that are obvious,” Rozier said at the close of a two-hour virtual hearing. “These are just the facts: There is a strain on staff, and choices have been made.”

The ruling from the bench came as health officials reported another 5,300 confirmed positive cases statewide Friday, bringing the pandemic total to over 382,500. Virus-related hospitalizations reached another record high of more than 2,150 patients.

There were 667 active COVID-19 cases as of Friday among the state’s prison population of just over 30,000 inmates, with double-digit case totals at a dozen institutions, according to Department of Public Safety data. Twenty-five prisoners have died to date from COVID-19-related illnesses. The number of prisoners in local hospitals has doubled since last week to nearly 20.

So far the prison system has allowed nearly 750 at-risk, nonviolent offenders to serve their time outside of prison through a state law giving the department latitude in where they are confined. Rozier told prison officials in June to reopen the process for early release and identify new factors for inmates to reach their sentence release dates sooner.

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