While some in North Carolina struggle to make it without haircuts or visits to the gym, inmates in our prison system struggle simply to maintain personal distance from others who could be transmitting a deadly virus. Considering the cramped conditions, it’s not an easy battle.

Since the virus first began spreading, five inmates have died. In addition, a prison nurse at Caswell Correctional Center died last month.

The response to this problem from state officials has been lackluster — not much sympathy is lost on prisoners — and as a result, some of our state’s prisons have turned into viral hot spots.

As of Monday, in Albemarle Correctional Institution, a medium-custody prison about 50 miles east of Charlotte, at least 60 inmates had been infected with COVID-19, making it the site of the third-largest outbreak in North Carolina’s prison system.

The largest was at Neuse Correctional Institution in Goldsboro, where more than 460 inmates were diagnosed during mass testing in April. The second-largest was at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, in Raleigh, where more than 90 inmates tested positive.

Prison employees — guards and staffers — have shared in that toxic mix. Twelve prison staff members at Albemarle have tested positive. And some employees have likely transmitted the virus to others outside of prisons.

There’s a bit more hope, though, thanks to a court mandate ordering the state to release a plan to test all 31,200 inmates in the prison system, as well as all 21,000 prison employees. (Prison employees already had access to testing, though testing wasn’t required.) The order is the result of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of North Carolina, the NAACP and other civil rights groups.

The state released a plan last week, ahead of the Monday deadline, and also started testing inmates, Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee said. “Our top priority is everyone’s health and their safety — and I mean everyone,” he said.

Sure. And it only took a court order.

As of Monday afternoon, almost 3,500 inmates had been tested, with 774 positive results. That’s about 25%, far above the infection rate of the general public. If that ratio holds for the entire system, around 8,000 inmates may have been infected. The process is expected to cost about $3.3 million and to take 60 days to complete, Ishee said. That seems like a long time.

Testing is essential to get a clear picture of what’s happening in the prisons — contrary to what one prominent politician seems to think, the virus doesn’t go away just because we haven’t tested for it. None of those who tested positive in Albemarle had shown symptoms — yet.

The ACLU argues that the only way to allow prisoners to achieve social distancing is to decrease the number of prisoners. To their credit, prison officials have so far released about 700 nonviolent prisoners who meet certain criteria, either to home confinement or some other type of supervised early release. But that’s not enough to ensure prisoners’ or workers’ safety. Obviously, those who are ill also need to be able to access adequate medical care, also.

It’s easy to say prison inmates deserve what they get. Such cold attitudes ignore their humanity, their capacity for redemption and the fact that they’re currently paying for their crimes while also having to fight a pandemic. If “all lives matter,” these certainly do, and they deserve protections from the virus that is still active in all of our communities.

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