North Carolina Prisoners Still Working in Chicken Plants, Despite Coronavirus Fears

“Kinda defeats the ban on visitation, which was to protect inmates and mainly staff,” critic says.


By Joseph Neff, The Marshall Project 



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 a Tyson Foods chicken processing plant a few miles away in Wilkesboro. 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 did not respond to questions Thursday.


Officials in other states that have shut down their work release programs...