North Carolina’s Extended Limits of Confinement: Woefully Underutilized in the Face of COVID-19

by Remy Servis, WFU JD/MA in Bioethics Candidate ’22

Amidst the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, incarcerated people have been one of the most at-risk subgroups[1], contracting the virus at a rate five times higher than the national average.[2] Due to overcrowded conditions in prisons and jails, this population has limited opportunity to effectively socially distance, and infection rates are exacerbated by squalid conditions, limited testing, and violence within correctional facilities.[3] Incarcerated persons represent a more vulnerable sector of the population, reflecting the disparities in social determinants of health that affect groups more likely to be incarcerated: racial minorities, those with unstable housing, and those with mental illness.[4] In particular, prisoners over the age of fifty-five experience a uniquely threatening sum of risk due to the uncontroverted finding that COVID-19 has been particularly deadly to older adults, with 80% of deaths in US occurring in patients aged sixty-five and older.[5]

Early in the pandemic, advocates across the country began to call for the early release of incarcerated people who pose a low risk to society, including the elderly and nonviolent.[6] Scholars highlighted how this type of release would assist with “flattening the curve” by removing volume from correctional institutions which are “notorious incubators and amplifiers of infectious diseases.”[7] Regarding the provision of early release, North Carolina has two laws on the books: “Medical Release of Inmates”, passed in 2008 and codified at N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1369, and N.C. Gen. Stat. § 148-4, which provides for state discretion in granting “Extended Limits of Confinement” (ELC). Both of these statutory options have their strengths and weaknesses, but the state has chosen to utilize its more amorphous powers under ELC to mitigate the release of select inmates. However, due to disappointingly narrow release criteria, only about 300 inmates (out of 34,000 total in state facilities) have been granted this ELC privilege.[8] Meanwhile, 3,000 inmates, or close to 10% of the prison population, have tested positive.[9] The ELC law, as it is currently formulated, is a lackluster response from the state of North Carolina to the threat of coronavirus in the state prison population. These ELC policies and eligibility criteria should be appropriately modified given the deadly context of this pandemic and any future virulent public health emergencies.

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