As more COVID-19 testing leads to prison workers being out, DPS asks other law enforcement if they’d work at prisons

The NC Department of Public Safety says the majority of offenders in the state prison system...
The NC Department of Public Safety says the majority of offenders in the state prison system who tested positive for COVID-19 are now presumed to have recovered, according to guidance by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.(WITN)
Updated: May. 29, 2020 at 11:44 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) – The North Carolina Department of Public Safety is asking law enforcement officers from other state agencies whether they would be willing to work at state prisons in the event the agency has a major shortage of correctional officers, according to documents obtained by WBTV.

The request comes as state prison officials have started to increase COVID-19 testing for prison employees and has faced additional pressure to require mandatory testing for all workers.

So far, prison leaders have resisted that call.

On Wednesday, agents with the DMV’s License and Theft Bureau received an email from the bureau’s director, Eric Copeland, with a survey asking whether they would be willing to voluntarily work at a state prison.

The form is labeled “DPS Assistance Survey” and asks the agents whether they would be willing to voluntarily work at a state prison.

Related: Nurse’s COVID-19 death raises questions about delayed testing at NC prison

“As testing within our prison system continues to expand, the Department of Public Safety may require assistance to back fill exposed and sick correctional officers throughout our state prison system,” a message at the top of the survey said.

“I am writing to request to know if you would be willing and able to assist the Department of Public Safety with staffing prisons should the need arise. It is our understanding that the mission would be manning of prison towers and executing roving patrols on the prison perimeter.”

The message said there are no specific locations or timelines for where outside staffing assistance may be needed.

Copeland’s email to License and Theft agents asked for the survey to be completed by Friday.

A DMV spokesman confirmed the message was sent in response to an inquiry for this story.

“DMV License & Theft was just one of several law enforcement agencies and organizations sent a survey asking about possibly assisting the Department of Public Safety in contingency planning related to COVID-19 should the need arise,” spokesman Steve Abbott said. “We have not been specifically asked to participate and currently don’t have any plans to do so.”

In response to a follow-up question from a reporter, Abbott said he did not know which other agencies had been contacted and referred further questions to DPS.

Early Friday afternoon, after this story was first published, a DPS spokesman said the survey was sent as part of the contingency planning process.

“Contingency planning involves looking ahead to future possibilities, including best case, probable and worst-case scenarios, and this survey was part of the planning process,” spokesman Keith Acree said. “No plan has been implemented to engage any outside law enforcement agencies to help with prison staffing.”

Acree said state, county and local law enforcement agencies had been surveyed. He did not immediately respond to a follow-up question asking for a list of agencies.

WBTV has previously reported that prison leadership scrapped a plan put forth by State Treasurer Dale Folwell and the State Health Plan to test all prison employees out of concern that it would lead to a large number of employees being confirmed to have the virus and, therefore, having to be out of work.

In April, prison leaders had to shut down an entire prison in Johnston County so staff there could help man the Neuse Correctional Institution, in Wayne County.

Related: NC lags in testing for COVID-19 in prisons. Experts say more will die unless that changes

Neuse CI is the only prison in North Carolina where all inmates and staff have been tested.

More than half of the 700 inmates tested for COVID-19 at Neuse CI were found to be positive.

Prison leaders do not have a total number of staff that have tested positive in the state’s prisons because they are not tracking that number.

Test results for employees who get tested through the new, free voluntary testing will be reported to DPS. That testing was scheduled to end this week but prison officials announced on Friday that it would be extended through July.

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