'Feels a little hopeless:' North Carolina families frustrated with prison system as COVID-19 pandemic continues

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Months after the first COVID-19 outbreak in a North Carolina prison, advocates and families say they remain in the dark about decisions officials are making about incarcerated individuals.

Close to 1,050 incarcerated people have tested positive for COVID-19 across the state. So far, no one at Hyde Correctional, where Danielle Brunson's brother is housed, has tested positive, but that doesn't make her any less worried.

"All it takes is for one person to get the coronavirus and for it to spread rapidly in the prison system," Brunson said.

The structure of many prisons makes social distancing challenging, if not impossible. The outbreak at the Neuse Correctional Institution in April that infected 466 inmates and killed three revealed just how damaging the virus can be inside a prison.

In an effort to help reduce the spread, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety began allowing incarcerated individuals to serve out the rest of their prison sentence in their homes while being supervised. The option is called Extending the Limits of Confinement or ELC. Individuals who are aging, pregnant, have health conditions, convicted of nonviolent crimes and are near the end of their sentences are eligible.

Brunson said her brother meets most of the criteria but still hasn't been released.

"So kind of going on a hamster wheel trying to figure out what to do, who to talk to, how to get my brother home to do his time and quarantine in the house," Brunson said.

Her brother was convicted of trafficking drugs, was exposed to tuberculosis and is set to be released in November, but no one can tell her if he's being considered for ELC.

"It feels a little hopeless, a little hopeless," Brunson explained.

And she's not alone.

Samantha Hensley is in a similar situation.

"It's very disheartening because it feels to them on the inside that nobody cares and when people out here do care and are trying to get answers, it's all the more disheartening because we can feel it, too," she said.

She's made numerous calls the last few months trying to get answers about her husband who has under a year left on his sentence for drug-related crimes.

"I'm sitting here crying myself to sleep at night because I don't know if that's going to happen if he gets sick and has a condition that we are unaware of or it attacks his body differently, he's not going to get the medical help that he needs, he's going to die alone," Hensley said.

She even filed a motion for his release but still hasn't seen any action.

The ABC11 I-Team obtained data on inmates released under ELC.

Documents from the state reveal 359 people ranging from 27 years old to 82 years old were released between April and the middle of June.

Eight-five percent of the people who qualified were younger than 65 years old.

About 75 percent of the individuals had sentences ending in 2020 but a handful had 2022 release dates.

The charges were mostly related to drugs but also included embezzlement, breaking and entering and shoplifting with a concealed weapon.

As of Friday, Pamela Walker, a spokesperson for the state's Department of Public Safety said 400 people have been released under ELC.

While hundreds have qualified, attorney Ben Finholt said he's heard from hundreds of others still confused, worried and frustrated because they meet the criteria.

"North Carolina has over 50 prisons so if you're looking at the average number of people released through ELC ...it's less than eight people per prison," Finholt said.

Finholt is the director of the Just Sentencing Project and works with NC Prisoner Legal Services.

He said he continues to run into walls trying to get answers for people.

"There is just not enough information out there for advocates, let alone for families themselves who are terrified; terrified that a loved one is going to die from COVID-19 when they're in prison for say breaking and entering," Finholt said.

He believes far more people qualify for ELC than the state has identified and more needs to be done.

"People are going to die from COVID-19, we all understand that at this point, but unless DPS and the Governor take the issues presented by COVID-19 in North Carolina state prisons more seriously there is going to be more deaths and that's a tragedy," Finholt said.

He said based on his analysis there are hundreds of inmates who might qualify based on certain criteria but lacks information around inmates.

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Walker with the Department of Public Safety said reviewing potential inmates is a careful and deliberative process that takes time.

"They have to look at each individual case on its own merits and there are a lot of other factors. Not just looking at their criminal history but looking at their behavior while they've been in prison, they also have to make sure and check with the local state attorney and make sure there are no pending charges or detainers," Walker said.

She said the state has expanded the criteria to include 2022 release dates.

Another 600 inmates have been released through a different method, however, there are still an estimated 32,000 inmates in North Carolina prisons.

Walker also said staffers are doing extra cleaning, providing masks, taking temperatures to help reduce the spread for those still inside prisons.

"I want to rest assure people that everyone's cases are going through and they are looking at people who would qualify, just based on their crime first and then pouring through their individual case and determining if they meet the criteria," Walker said.

But for those on the outside, they say news isn't coming fast enough.

"I just want to see movement. I want to get answers. I want to get a call. I want to know what we need to do next and I want to see some action," Hensley said.

She isn't the only one calling for the state to act.

Earlier this year, the ACLU, Emancipate NC and other organizations filed a lawsuit against the state for failing to take action to stop the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. A judge ruled in their favor last month stating DPS needed to take more aggressive measures to protect incarcerated individuals.

"Right now, they are not releasing many people and the population is steadily increasing and so as this pandemic continues it's just a recipe for disaster," said Daniel Siegel, an attorney with ACLU.

Siegel said he's hopeful after the ruling the state will see more releases but so far the amount is not what ACLU would expect to see.

"The state has a lot of discretion in extending the limits of confinement, for parole, clemency and pardon, they have plenty of tools at their disposal to release people, they just aren't using them," Siegel said.

Walker said the state is doing all it can and officials are working as fast as they can.

She explained both the incarcerated individual and the family will be contacted if they are being considered to ELC.

The state does have a hotline and email family members can reach out to, however, Walker said officials are unable to give details about an individual's status because it is confidential and a potential security issue.

RESOURCES:
DPS email: Covid19offenderinfo@ncdps.gov
Hotline: (800) 368-1985
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