TABOR CITY, N.C. (WECT) - Tabor Correctional Institute has the most active cases of the coronavirus among the state’s prisons as of this week.
Tuesday afternoon, prison officials announced an inmate who tested positive for COVID-19 died in the hospital. The deceased was a male in his early 60′s, who had underlying health conditions, according to the Department of Public Safety (DPS).
The prison in Columbus County has a capacity of 1,752 male inmates and houses minimum and medium custody offenders.
DPS statistics show, as of Monday afternoon, the Tabor City facility had 165 active cases and more than 1,900 cumulative COVID-19 tests have been administered. Columbus Correctional only has one active case of the virus, according to the DPS website.
All the prisons in North Carolina have a total of 393 active cases, meaning Tabor City’s prison outbreak accounts for more than 40 percent of active prison cases in the entire state.
Information from the Columbus County Health Department shows correctional facilities account for more than 70 percent of the new COVID-19 cases announced Monday. Health leaders in Columbus County confirm that of their 135 new cases, 95 can be attributed to correctional facilities in the county. The cases from Columbus Correctional and Tabor City Correctional must be included in the county’s total under state law.
As of Friday’s congregate living report, DHHS confirmed a six-person outbreak reported at Columbus County Detention Center was considered over.
More than 1,900 tests have been performed at Tabor Correctional. Many inmates have been tested twice or more and, at the time of reporting, 225 tests have come back positive.
Chris Smith was released from the facility in August. He says being behind bars during a pandemic was especially scary because people can’t practice social distancing if they’re sharing a cell.
He’s concerned people’s lives are in the hands of the staff at the correctional center.
“It could be your family member so don’t take it lightly. Everybody that’s in prison, or whatever, are still human beings. Not just human beings...everybody in there, their life is just precious as anyone on the outside. We are not outcasts, we are still somebody,” said Smith. “People’s lives are at stake at Tabor Correctional and I just thank God that I was able to make it out safe."
He says he’s grateful his release date came before cases skyrocketed. A few weeks ago, it easily could have been his life on the line.
“I have a job, I have a car and I pay taxes so I am a productive member of society. And picture if I was one that got tested for COVID-19... I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today and being a voice for the people that’s still in there," said Smith.
According to DPS officials, the prison system as a whole has taken more than four dozen actions to prevent the virus from spreading in prisons. Statewide, the entire 31,000 offender population has been tested for COVID-19 at least once. Many have been tested twice or more.
“The Division of Prisons is working hard to protect the health and safety of the staff and the offenders, and this remains the top priority in this first-in-a-century pandemic of highly infectious respiratory virus,” DPS spokesperson John Bull wrote in an email.
Staff working inside the medical isolation areas are required to wear medical-grade PPE at all times. All staff and every offender has been issued six cloth masks each and are required to wear them. Hand sanitizer and disinfectant spray have been available throughout the facility for offenders and staff to access readily throughout the day.
Offenders are tested on arrival to prison from the jails. They are tested again if they have symptoms of the virus, if they may have been potentially exposed to someone who tested positive, and sometimes entire cohorts of offenders are tested for the virus.
Any offenders transferred into another prison go immediately on arrival into medical quarantine without contact with the general offender population.
All housing units at the prisons are separated into cohorts, kept in groups, to prevent the mixing of offenders in one housing unit from those in other housing units.
Offenders who test positive are immediately separated from the rest of the population and placed in medical isolation. The housing units where the COVID-19 positive offenders were housed are placed under a 14-day quarantine for observation. Any offender who shows symptoms of the virus is moved into medical isolation and tested for COVID-19.
DPS will not say whether an offender has been hospitalized or where, for security reasons, but as of Tuesday morning, just seven of the 31,000 offenders in the prison system are at an outside medical facility due to COVID-19.