RALEIGH — An inmate at the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women died Wednesday of preexisting conditions complicated by the coronavirus, state prison officials said.
She is the first inmate with the virus to die at the women’s prison near downtown Raleigh, and the fourth coronavirus death among those in custody in the state’s prisons. The N.C. Department of Public Safety would not identify her, citing her family’s right to privacy and the confidentiality of state prison records, but it said she was in her late 60s.
But sources and state prison records indicate the victim was 67-year-old Faye Brown, who had been serving a life sentence for the 1975 murder of a state trooper after a bank robbery. Brown didn’t pull the trigger, but she was an accomplice to the crime.
The inmate had been hospitalized April 19, a day after testing positive for the novel coronavirus.
Pamela Humphrey, an inmate in the victim’s housing unit, said in a phone interview that the warden told inmates of Brown’s death Wednesday afternoon.
She said the inmate was like a mother or grandmother to many others.
“She was everybody’s confidant and friend,” Humphrey said.
Brown was among a group of inmates serving life sentences who were seeking release in 2009. They contended they were sentenced at a time in the mid-1970s when a life sentence meant no longer than 80 years. The credits they had earned for good behavior — through working jobs or taking classes — should have reduced their time so they could be freed, they argued.
At that time, Brown was in minimum custody at the women’s prison and on work release. Her employer told a reporter for Charlotte’s WNCN-TV then that Brown should be freed.
“She can be the voice to tell others that this is not the way,” Wanda Short said. “She can make a big difference to hopefully change a young person’s life so someone else won’t fall victim.”
Brown and the other inmates lost the court battle. In 2010, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that good behavior credits could not be applied to life sentences.
Mary Pollard, the executive director of the nonprofit N.C. Prisoner Legal Services, said Brown should have been released then instead of remaining in prison where she likely contracted the virus.
“This is a woman who was immediately parole-ready,” Pollard said. “There was really no public safety reason to keep her in prison, and now she’s dead.”
The women’s prison has the second biggest prison outbreak of the coronavirus after Neuse Correctional Institution in Goldsboro. It originated in the minimum-security camp along South State Street, which is also known as the “Canary Unit.” All in the unit were tested about two weeks ago.
Since then, there have been 90 positive coronavirus tests among inmates at the prison and 123 negative tests, the department reported. Inmates in the unit have told The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer that it’s impossible to socially distance at the facility, and they say the prison system should be furloughing inmates to keep them safe.
Some of those inmates had been assigned to clean Department of Public Safety buildings in Raleigh, and believed they might have contracted the virus on the job. Several continued working until mid-April, The Charlotte Observer reported.
Public interest groups have sued in state court to try to get more inmates released. A state judge is awaiting information on the prison system’s efforts to protect inmates from the virus.
Two of the coronavirus-related deaths in prisons are at Neuse; the other is at Pender Correctional Institution in Burgaw.
“Any death is deeply saddening, and we continue to work hard to deal with COVID-19 in our prisons,” Todd Ishee, commissioner of prisons, said in a news release. “The safety and health of the staff and the offenders in our custody remain our top priority.”
Contact Jennifer Fernandez at 336-373-7064.