Gemini Boyd, Founder of Project Bolt and member of The Bail Project, speaks at a press conference in front of the Mecklenburg County Jail to bring awareness to the vulnerability of the prison population during the COVID-19 pandemic, calling for the release of prisoners who meet certain low recidivism risk criteria. Photo by Grant Baldwin for Cardinal & Pine Charlotte jails
Gemini Boyd, Founder of Project Bolt and member of The Bail Project, speaks at a press conference in front of the Mecklenburg County Jail to bring awareness to the vulnerability of the prison population during the COVID-19 pandemic, calling for the release of prisoners who meet certain low recidivism risk criteria. Photo by Grant Baldwin for Cardinal & Pine

“Bringing down the population is the only humane response when it comes to this community’s treatment of the human beings currently there.”

Judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys have been working behind closed doors to combat the spread of coronavirus among inmates in the Mecklenburg County jail in Uptown by allowing them to go home. Prosecutors and public defenders are scouring logs to determine which prisoners may be considered, such as those charged with low-level or victimless offenses, and others in weakened states of health. 

By Tuesday, four dozen of the jail’s 1,600 prisoners had been scheduled for release.

County Public Defender Kevin Tully called the action a necessity, given the current threat to public health. Crowded living quarters and unsanitary conditions make the incarcerated a particularly vulnerable population. Jails also admit and release dozens of inmates daily, raising the chances of the virus being introduced and spread. 

“Bringing down the population is the only humane response when it comes to this community’s treatment of the human beings currently there,” Tully told the Charlotte Observer via email.

READ MORE: Coronavirus Could Wreak Havoc in U.S. Prisons and Jails

There has not been a confirmed case among Mecklenburg inmates at Jail Central and Jail North, nor among any of North Carolina’s 35,000 inmates. Still, officials are implementing stricter screening policies, such as isolating and treating inmates who have symptoms of respiratory illness or have fevers of 100 degrees, and screening them if they are scheduled for court or transfer. Mecklenburg County Jail has also installed additional hand sanitizer stations and obtained more protective gear for staff and inmates. 

Tuesday, activists and advocates gathered to urge officials to expedite the process by freeing defendants held for trial because they can’t afford bail, and to expand the criteria of vulnerable inmates to include pregnant women and those with HIV. They also wanted police to issue citations for lower-level misdemeanors, rather than arresting and jailing offenders. Tim Emry, a Charlotte attorney, said otherwise the current measures would not be enough. 

“They are not preventing hundreds of people from coming into this jail,” Emry said. “I’m deeply afraid that if the coronavirus gets into that jail, people are going to die.”

This follows Monday’s announcement from North Carolina’s Department of Public Safety that all jail and prison visits would be suspended for 30 days, and last week’s announcement from NC Chief Justice Cheri Beasley that district and superior courts would delay most cases for 30 days in order to minimize the risk of transmission in crowded courtrooms. 

Notable exceptions are juvenile cases and emergency protective orders, such as for domestic violence.