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Activists: Free Mecklenburg inmates from threat of coronavirus infection
Weekly rallies call attention to incarcerated
 
Published Monday, April 20, 2020 6:05 pm
by Herbert L. White | The Charlotte Post

PHOTO | PAUL WILLIAMS III
A coalition of activists want Mecklenburg judicial and law enforcement officials to widen eligibility for incarcerated to be released from county confinement. The activists, who call themselves Decarcerate Mecklenburg, have participated in weekly rolling rallies called Freedom Fridays in Center City.

COVID-19 can’t be locked up, but Mecklenburg County's incarcerated are especially at risk for the pandemic’s spread.


Decarcerate Mecklenburg – a coalition of community activists, attorneys, and religious leaders –have held rolling protests of vehicles circling Mecklenburg County Detention Center, the District Attorney’s office, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police headquarters. The first “Freedom Friday” rally was April 10, and a second was a week later. The alliance wants CMPD to issue citations instead of make arrests and District Attorney Spencer Merriweather to release inmates held on bond, those with six months or less on their sentence, pregnant women, and everyone over 50 years of age.


“The threat of COVID-19 in our jail is heightened by the fact that Charlotte’s racist criminal legal system preys on people who are already vulnerable: Black people, immigrants, survivors of assault, people with substance use and mental health disorders, and those who are houseless and low income,” said Kristie Puckett Williams, an organizer with American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and Decarcerate Mecklenburg. “Continued incarceration will result in negligent homicide in our jails.”


At least two Mecklenburg County employees have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The county hasn’t released information about the more than 1,400 inmates behind bars.


The activists equate the close proximity of inmates, sheriff’s deputies and staff as a tinder box of coronavirus transmission, which ultimately could be spread into the larger community. Merriweather cites initiatives launched by his office to limit pretrial custody of nonviolent offenders with reducing incarceration by 14% since the start of the pandemic.


“In light of reduced court operations due to COVID-19, judges have proven willing to entertain reassessment of pretrial confinement decisions, as appropriate,” he said in a statement.

“We have and will continue to be intentional about balancing due process and health concerns for defendants with the priority of maintaining public safety during an especially trying time for our community.

“As both the detention center and the entire community will be under increased strain, my office will continue to work diligently to ensure that people in pretrial custody are the people who need to be – no more, no less.”

An arrest and pretrial confinement should not be a death sentence, said defense attorney Tim Emry.

“As this crisis rolls through our community, it is clear that the judges and DA’s office still don’t grasp that this is an emergency,” he said.

The activists, who are also coming in from neighboring South Carolina and Georgia, are determined to get results and will assemble every Friday until county and judicial officials make more inmates eligible for release.


“We did this protest [on April 10] already and still nothing has changed from our judges and DAs,” Emry said. “It is clear that the judges and DA’s office still don’t grasp that this is an emergency, and so we are coming back again.”

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