State prisons begin moving inmates to community supervision

Erik Erik Hooks at COVID-19 briefing
CHANGE OF PLANS: Erik Hooks, secretary of the N.C. Department of Public Safety, announces the removal of some prisoners from state facilities to slow the spread of COVID-19 at an April 13 press conference. Photo courtesy of the N.C. Department of Public Safety

Prisoners throughout North Carolina will start leaving their cells in an effort by the state Department of Public Safety to slow the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities — but don’t call it early release. Erik Hooks, the state’s secretary of public safety, emphasized during an April 13 press conference that inmates will remain under his department’s supervision for the duration of time they are currently scheduled to serve.

While specific conditions would be decided “on a case-by-case basis,” Hooks said, prisoners could be tracked using home confinement or electronic monitors to ensure they were adhering to their sentences. He noted that juvenile offenders were also being diverted from detention facilities to community-based programs whenever possible.

Approximately 500 prisoners are currently being evaluated by DPS staff for community-based supervision, said Hooks, with the first cohort of six offenders transferred on April 9. He did not specify the facilities from which those prisoners would come; Buncombe County contains two DPS institutions, Craggy Correctional Center and the Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women. (County officials recently instituted their own programs to reduce the jail population.)

No inmates convicted of violent crimes against people will be considered for the modified sentences, Hooks added. Most of those under evaluation are either pregnant, aged at least 65 or have underlying health conditions, placing them at high risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms.

County advises shoppers to prepare for enhanced social distancing

“You may see some significant changes starting today as you do your essential shopping,” Fletcher Tove warned Buncombe County residents at an April 13 press conference. The county’s emergency preparedness coordinator noted that new rules for retail, mandated by Gov. Roy Cooper in an executive order taking effect at 5 p.m. that day, could cause grocery and pharmacy runs to take longer.

That’s because stores are limited to a new “emergency operations capacity,” defined as 20% of fire code capacity or five customers per 1,000 square feet. If retailers reach that capacity, they are required to post staff at entrances and enforce a one-out, one-in rule, with customers waiting 6 feet from one another; “if there is a long line, this means that you may be outside for a while,” Tove said.

Tove encouraged county residents to plan ahead if possible and pick up a week or two worth of supplies at a time to reduce their shopping frequency. “Respect everyone’s space, try to understand and share the feelings of others and be kind,” he said.

In other news

  • The Western Region Education Service Alliance is partnering with the Dogwood Health Trust to improve internet access for students receiving education remotely due to COVID-19. Both Asheville City Schools and Madison County Schools have already received some of the 510 Wi-Fi hotspots to be distributed throughout the region.
  • As of noon on April 13, Western North Carolina is no longer under a burn ban that had been in place since April 3. However, residents are still encouraged to avoid burning yard debris through the end of May to reduce wildfire risks and preserve first responders for COVID-19 needs.
  • Pardee UNC Health designated its urgent care facility in Fletcher specifically for patients with respiratory symptoms. Although the site, at 2695 Hendersonville Road, will not offer COVID-19 testing, flu and strep throat tests will be available.
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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Assistant Editor of Mountain Xpress, regularly contributing to coverage of Western North Carolina's government, environment and health care. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville, and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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