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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

Activists, Advocates Protest For Mecklenburg County Inmates To Be Released Due To COVID-19

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Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office
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A coalition of community activists and attorneys held a protest Friday to demand the release of certain inmates and an end to arrests by Charlotte police during the pandemic. They are calling for officers to issue citations instead.

Statewide, 30 North Carolina prison inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. Kristie Puckett Williams, the North Carolina ACLU statewide campaign director for Smart Justice, says the release of inmates will prevent more from contracting the virus while in jail, where she said those being held are not being protected adequately. She described Friday's protest.

Kristie Puckett Williams: Myself and a group of public defenders and defense attorneys, along with other activists and advocates in the community, came out to drive around the courthouse, the DA's office, the jail and CMPD in order to bring awareness to the fact that 1,400 people are still incarcerated in Mecklenburg County without what they need to protect themselves against COVID-19.

Gwendolyn Glenn: How many cars did you have in the caravan?

Puckett Williams: Probably about 20 - 25 cars. 

Glenn: Explain for listeners what you guys are hoping to accomplish through this. You have several demands. Tell us about those. 

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Credit Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office
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The interior of the Mecklenburg County detention center.

Puckett Williams: Well, we want people who are incarcerated to No. 1, have access to be able to clean their cells and their stations where they are dining and be able to socially isolate, which they don't have the ability to do right now. They don't have the ability to do that because of the policy and procedures that the Clintons and the correctional system put in place under the guise of safety. 

Once it actually gets inside of a communal facility -- whether its a jail, detention center or a prison -- it spreads like wildfire. So our demands are release the majority of the people that are being held because the majority of the people being held in the Mecklenburg County Jail are there for pretrial. That means that they have been charged with a crime not convicted of a crime and are too poor to purchase their freedom from the state.

Glenn: How many numbers you said the majority are? Do you have specific numbers? 

Puckett Williams: Well, it changes every day. I didn’t look at the report from this morning. We do know that 1,600 people a couple of weeks ago was the average population of the jail. It's down to 1,400 and about 700 to 800 of those people are held for trial. The numbers don't change too much from day to day because there are also people being picked up on a daily basis. 

Glenn: And you mentioned in the press release that I saw that you guys had that you want CMPD not to arrest people, but to hand out citations?

Puckett Williams: Citations in lieu of arrest. That's something that the police already have the ability to do. We're asking them to do it especially for things that are very minor. 

Glenn: From what I understand, you are also asking that others who have been convicted be released. Do you have exceptions? 

Puckett Williams: We want to prioritize people whose systems are a compromised. So that is going to be pregnant people, people who are elderly, people who have had cancer, people who have diabetes, hypertension. We are asking for them to be prioritized.

Glenn: What about people who may have committed murder or other serious crimes? Are you asking that they be released if they have these illnesses or elderly or pregnant? 

Puckett Williams: Of course. 

Glenn: Even if they've committed murder? 

Puckett Williams: Even if they’ve been accused of committing murder, they have not been sentenced to death. Why would you leave them inside to potentially, more than likely contract COVID and die? So because of that, we're asking for the majority of people to be released because the majority of people are not there for heinous, serious crimes. So when we focus on less than 5% of the people, we leave at least 95% of the people to be subjected to this because of the lack of access to health care that they have on a regular basis, on a regular day, on a terrible day. We’re not even going to talk about in a pandemic. 

Glenn: The march focused on Mecklenburg County and those who are in county jail, correct? 

Puckett Williams: Yes. 

Glenn: Did you get any kind of response from the county officials or were they there watching your march today?

Puckett Williams: Not that I know of. We didn't really seek any comments from the sheriff or the district attorney or any of the judges. 

Glenn: And where do you go from here?

Puckett Williams: Every instance that we can, we will keep bringing awareness to the fact that 1,400 other people are living inside of the Mecklenburg County Jail. If we don't do something fast a lot of those people are going to be sick and potentially die. And we just want people to know that we care about them and their family members who may be in custody.

Glenn: Okay, well, Kristie, thanks for talking with us today. 

Puckett Williams: Thank you. 

Glenn: Kristie Puckett Williams is the North Carolina ACLU statewide campaign director for Smart Justice.