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Project seeks to protect lives of inmates most risk from COVID

Prisons are super-spreaders for COVID-19, but it’s actually the minimum-security prisons that pose the maximum risk of spreading the disease—and the inmates most at risk are often ones serving relatively short sentences for minor crimes. But thanks to volunteer attorneys invoking a new state policy that allows for conditional release under certain circumstances, some qualified prisoners are serving the remainder of their sentences at home.

Steven Wilson of Parker Poe in Raleigh is one such attorney, recently helping a 70-year-old man convicted of a non-violent, tax-related offense secure his conditional release. The client’s minimum-security, dormitory-style living area was crowded with 57 bunks, each separated by just three feet. The dorm was put on lockdown after more than 20 of its residents tested positive for the coronavirus responsible for causing COVID-19.

Wilson stepped in pro bono when the man’s family reached out, concerned for his safety. While higher-security inmates typically live in one- or two-person lockable cells, lower-risk offenders are often housed in open dorms that pose a greater risk of contracting and spreading the coronavirus.

According to statistics gathered by The Marshall Project, one in four North Carolina prisoners has tested positive for the virus, making them nearly four times as likely as the unincarcerated to contract it.

“It’s a pretty bad situation, to subject them and their families to this risk,” Wilson said. “The obvious thing to do is to release them. And those who can’t be released are safer if those who can be released are.”

In response to COVID-19, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety used existing provisions in state law to craft a new policy called Extending the Limits of Confinement (ELC), which allows for the release of nonviolent individuals who, among other criteria, are close to completing their sentence, have a viable in-state residence plan, and are unlikely to threaten society.

The program isn’t a commutation or early release from a sentence, but rather a conditional release. Those released are supervised by community corrections officers and are subject to electronic monitoring, curfew, and drug testing. As of Jan. 26, 916 inmates had been transferred to ELC, including 419 who would still otherwise be incarcerated.

Inmates are notified when they become eligible for ELC. At Wilson’s request, a doctor reviewed his client’s medical records and wrote an affidavit highlighting his age and underlying conditions that make him more susceptible to the disease.

Rather than filing a motion for appropriate relief, Wilson petitioned for a more expedient writ of habeas corpus. He said that the man had less than a year remaining to serve—but still plenty of time to contract and die from COVID-19.

“My real fear was that I wasn’t going to be fast enough,” Wilson said. “He had a lawful conviction but when you look at it in the context of COVID and the sincere risk to life … it needed to be considered quickly.”

Wilson made his petition Dec. 22. One week later his client walked out of the prison that had been his home for approximately three years.

Wilson said that prisoners, often unrepresented and voiceless, are not always on the forefront of people’s minds.

Rick Glaser, also of Parker Poe, in Charlotte is a former federal prosecutor. He opposes releasing high-risk offenders back into the community, but believes it is imperative to release eligible individuals, given the current health environment.

“I can think of no reason, given that group of people, why we would want to keep them incarcerated and exposed to an illness that could kill them,” Glaser said. “I think this is an outstanding way to try to resolve this and minimize health hazards in the prison system.”

Wilson was sworn in as an attorney just three months ago but jumped at the chance to spotlight ELC, hoping that more attorneys will take up the cause.

“I know they don’t always have a happy ending, but I’m very thankful and hopefully this paved the way for more people to be released going forward,” Wilson said.

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