North Carolina suspended its work release program statewide on Tuesday, March 24, to limit the prisoners’ “potential exposure to coronavirus and reduce the chances they could transport the virus into a prison,” the Department of Public Safety said in a statement March 25.
As the COVID-19 virus spreads across the U.S., every state has suspended family visits in prisons among other restrictions to try to reduce the risk of infection for staff and the people locked inside.
But North Carolina has continued to allow hundreds of prisoners to flow in and out of facilities across the state every day: people going to their work release jobs at chicken plants, construction sites, factories and offices. Critics say this practice puts prisoners at risk of contracting and spreading the virus, and increases the chances of bringing it inside when they return at the end of the workday.
Several states have halted work release programs in response to the pandemic, including Alabama, Maine and Wisconsin. But officials in North Carolina defended their decision to continue it in order to accommodate businesses.
“The Division of Prisons is sensitive to the business needs of participating employers while balancing the medical issues at hand,” said John Bull, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety.
As in most states with a work release program, North Carolina allows low-risk prisoners—generally people with fewer than 18 months to serve and with a good prison discipline record—to go to jobs outside the prison and return every day. For years, about 1,200 people a day have worked under the program. That number is a little lower now, Bull said, as the demand has decreased from restaurants and other employers hard hit by measures to restrict the spread of the coronavirus.
But Elizabeth Forbes, who heads the prisoner advocacy group NC-CURE, was surprised to learn that the work release program continues.
“I am appalled they continue to allow inmates to work outside the facility,” Forbes said. “Kinda defeats the ban on visitation, which was to protect inmates and mainly staff.”
Bull said the public safety department is medically screening prisoners for fever and respiratory symptoms before departure and upon return, though most prisons currently lack thermometer guns and hospital-grade tools suited for screening groups of people. Bull said the state has ordered such equipment and is expected to arrive within days. No staff or inmates have tested positive for the disease as of Thursday, according to the state.
One large source of work release labor is Wilkes Correctional Center, in the Appalachian foothills. Dozens of the facility’s 260 prisoners leave to work daily at Tyson Foods plants. A prison official said the inmates went to work Thursday as usual.
Bull declined to discuss specific employers participating in the program citing “operational and security concerns.” Tyson Foods initially said Friday the company did not have prisoners working at its Wilkesboro, North Carolina, facility. In a statement later, the company said it “employs only a few work release inmates directly,” and that most prisoners working at the “Wilkesboro plant locations” do so via outside contractors that sanitize the Tyson facilities.
“We see this as an important transitional step for many low-risk inmates in North Carolina, as the program provides an opportunity for them to support their families and reduce the economic costs of their imprisonment,” Tyson Foods’ statement said. “The production of food during this time has been designated as critical to America’s infrastructure.”
The company also said it “will soon equip trained personnel with thermometers to take the temperature of every employee before each shift. Anyone with a fever won’t be permitted to work.”
Officials in other states that have shut down their work release programs cited the spread of the virus as the main reason.
“We made this decision due to locations in Maine having community spread of COVID-19, beginning this past weekend,” said that state’s Deputy Commissioner of Corrections Ryan Thornell.
Mary Pollard, the director of North Carolina Prison Legal Services, said she understands work release jobs can be popular among prisoners. It lets them temporarily leave prison, earn minimum wage or more and ease back into society.
But given the havoc that COVID-19 could wreak inside the close confines of a prison, Pollard said it would make more sense to send all work release-eligible prisoners home. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper could commute their sentences with the stroke of a pen, she said. Cooper’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
“If we can trust them to go into a chicken plant every day, why not just release them?” Pollard asked. “Incarceration should not exist to provide workers for Tyson.”