In some ways, the Mecklenburg County Detention Center is among the safer places to avoid COVID-19. Inside is a controlled environment where inmates live, sleep, and eat.
Compared to the comings and goings beyond its walls, the building is safer than most. But the danger of the coronavirus to the jail doesn’t come from within the jail — it comes from beyond it.
“Think of a fortress,” says Sheriff Garry McFadden. “The Alamo was a great fort until it was breached.”
Once breached by the coronavirus — which seems more of a “when” than an “if” — the closed nature of the jail becomes its greatest vulnerability. Until then, the jail builds a fortress-like defense against COVID-19 with new protocols: daily screenings for staff, video visitations for inmates, intensified sanitation, and, like everywhere else, a lot more hand washing.
But each day, the jail faces the same invisible enemy that we all face: COVID-19 can spread before it reveals a symptom. Some people test positive for the coronavirus without becoming symptomatic, yet still become contagious. Someone — a guard, doctor, or new detainee — can enter with no fever, no cough, no international travel history, and obey every protocol.
Still, COVID-19 can enter the jail, a building holding about 1,500 inmates in a closed environment.
“It’s a catastrophe waiting to happen,” says Tim Emry, a Charlotte criminal defense attorney. “If COVID gets in the jail, it’s going to be disastrous. Our jails and prisons are places where infection and disease spread like wildfire.”
Nearly two-thirds of those held at the Uptown jail have been charged and await trial, and — according to American law — are presumed innocent. Many remain there because they can’t afford to pay bail, including some who are homeless. They face a danger common to jails everywhere, in cities that mitigate the risk with tools like early inmate release and modified arrest strategies. How, in the midst of a pandemic, can jails retain a commitment to public safety while protecting the health of those inside?
At least 52 people have tested positive for coronavirus at Rikers Island in New York City. In New Jersey, a jail guard tested positive. In Illinois, two inmates and a guard at the Cook County Jail tested positive. Right here in North Carolina, seven state prison inmates have tested positive.
COVID-19 is breaking in.