As a group of community organizers gathered in front of the Mecklenburg County Detention Center in Uptown on Tuesday to call on local law enforcement officials to reduce the local jail population to help curb the spread of COVID-19, those officials were quietly scheduling dozens of inmates to be released.
Attorney Tim Emry of The Emry Law Firm joined local advocates in presenting an open letter addressed to Sheriff Garry McFadden, District Attorney Spencer Merriweather, CMPD Chief Kerr Putney and 13 other city leaders and criminal justice officials calling for the release of people being held on bond or nearing the end of their sentences, and for police to halt arrests for misdemeanors so as to lessen the potential for a COVID-19 outbreak inside the detention center.
“The CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommends physical distancing, which we know is impossible for people who are locked in cages,” said Kristie Puckett-Williams, regional field organizer for the ACLU of North Carolina’s Campaign for Smart Justice. “In a system that is already failing at applying the law fairly and equitably, arresting and locking people up just adds to the risk of viral infection and adequate care, and that is unconscionable. This routine practice is putting thousands of people at risk of infection, including those working in the jails, legal workers and incarcerated people.”
On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Mecklenburg County Sheriffs Office acknowledged that Sheriff McFadden was working on reviewing cases for potential release.
“There have already been some preliminary discussions regarding this matter, several cases are under review and we are looking for opportunities to safely reduce the jail population in response to COVID-19,” the spokesperson stated in an email. The Public Defender’s Office, District Attorney and the Sheriff’s Office have met and realize that this will be a case-by-case analysis and may take time but they are working as fast as they can to get this accomplished.”
While those officials have begun scheduling the release of some inmates being held for victimless offenses and other low-level crimes, the open letter also calls on CMPD to begin citing and releasing people charged with misdemeanors rather than take them into custody.
“We need CMPD and other law enforcement agencies to make a clear and direct commitment to cite rather than arrest for misdemeanors and consider delaying arrests or alternate measures to avoid incarceration for low-level felonies,” Emry said on Wednesday.
Queen City Nerve asked CMPD if there were any discussions about potentially changing policies to help limit incarceration. A spokesperson answered with a statement about screening people they do take into custody.
“The CMPD has been in constant communication with the Sheriff to ensure everyone’s health and safety in the event law enforcement has contact with a person who has been arrested and potentially infected with the virus,” the statement read. “The CMPD and Sheriff’s Office are prioritizing the personal health of those arrested and arresting officers by immediately providing them the medical attention they need. Treatment and medical care of the person arrested and the arresting officer’s wellbeing is the chief concern.”
At Tuesday’s press event, Emry held the records of two inmates, one of whom was arrested on Friday afternoon for consuming alcohol in public, the other was arrested Monday morning for urinating in public.
“Every single person that is introduced into this jail is another potential host or carrier of this virus, and it’s simply nonsensical,” Emery said. “It is absolutely without reason why they are arresting people on these types of offenses.”
Emry recognized that steps were being taken, though not fast enough, he said.
“There are meetings and conversations that are happening, there are some efforts that are being made. Judges are aware of the issue, the prosecutor’s office is trying to make efforts to address this, but we want them to double down on their efforts,” Emery said. “What we’re saying is, the efforts that they have undertaken thus far are not preventing hundreds of people coming into this jail.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, the open letter had the support of 83 local organizations and residents. On Wednesday, the group posted the petition online.
Around the country, civil rights groups and law enforcement officials have expressed concern over the danger of COVID-19 spreading in jails, and in some places they have taken action.
In the last week, the Los Angeles County sheriff released 600 inmates to make room for distancing within the jail there. More than 200 inmates were released from Ohio’s Cuyahoga County Jail, and the Washington County Jail in Oregon has released 120 inmates.
The LAPD has reportedly decreased the average amount of daily arrests from 300 to 60 by releasing people who can be cited rather than booked.
In the letter presented on Tuesday, advocates in Mecklenburg County also request that officials release inmates most vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19 such as older adults and pregnant women; release inmates serving sentences for low-level convictions who are scheduled for release in the next six months; relax restrictions against those currently on house arrest and electronic monitoring; and ensure comprehensive health care for people who remain incarcerated.
MCSO representatives have said the department has placed healthcare professionals in the Uptown detention center to screen incoming inmates, though not many more details of how that’s being implemented are known. Emry said he and others have heard anecdotally from inmates telling them that not much is being done to sanitize the pods.
“We want to see the sheriff’s plan. We haven’t heard much from the sheriff,” Emery said Tuesday. “We know that Sheriff McFadden has done some good things with this jail compared to past leadership, but we want to hear his plan for what he is doing to keep these residents safe.”
Gemini Boyd, CEO of youth intervention program Project Bolt and a former inmate in Mecklenburg County, is hopeful that local officials will not only take action to help limit incarceration during this crisis, but use that action as a model to shape policy changes in the future.
“This is isn’t something that we’re just asking for now, this just brought the attention to it … All these things need to happen moving forward,” Boyd said. “One thing about this city, it is a very reactive city; we’re not a city that takes action, we are a city that reacts to something that has happened. This has happened in our city and now it’s time for us to react to make sure that we’re doing the best thing for [incarcerated people].
“These are human beings we’re talking about,” he continued. “This isn’t data or anything like that, these are human lives that we’re discussing right here, and there needs to be something done for the human beings that are housed in this detention center.”
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