Since November, 267 cases of COVID-19 have been connected to the Forsyth County Detention Center, the second-highest cumulative total among North Carolina's county jails. Officials say steps have been taken to mitigate the spread of the virus, but some community activists assert more needs to be done.
Major Richard Carleton, who manages operations at the detention center, says the jail had only four COVID-19 cases before Thanksgiving. But things escalated quickly after the holiday.
“An asymptomatic employee or contractor brought it into the facility. We didn't find out until four or five days later," he says. "And then the whole housing unit was infected.”
A total of 220 inmates and 47 staff members have been infected so far. But many of them have already recovered. On Friday, the jail had 50 active cases — 45 inmates and 5 staff members. The number of new infections has also been steadily dropping off.
Major Carleton says this is due in part to increased testing of inmates and staff members and stricter quarantine protocols for new arrivals. PPE policies have also changed. Staff members are required to wear N95 masks. And inmates are now issued two surgical masks per day when they used to get two cloth masks per week.
Community activist Bailey Pittenger, with the Triad Abolition Project, says jail officials took way too long to make changes. She says her group has been asking officials to provide more masks to inmates since the summer.
“Which was kind of a simple demand for people living in a place where social distancing is basically impossible,” she says. “So seeing that those measures can be taken now is also kind of disappointing because it's like, 'why wasn't this happening before?'"
The Triad Abolition Project, alongside several other activist groups including the Forsyth County Community Bail Fund, is lobbying the sheriff's office to cut down on arrests for minor crimes and release low-level offenders to slow the spread of the virus. Officials with the sheriff's office have said those demands are not legally feasible.
More than 10,500 COVID-19 cases and 74 deaths have been connected to North Carolina's correctional facilities.
Data from The Marshall Project show COVID-19 rates among prisoners are four times higher than the general population.