After 11 months of litigation, the North Carolina prison system will fast-track the release of at least 3,500 people over the next six months as part of a legal settlement over prison conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wake County Superior Court Judge Vinston Rozier Jr. ruled last June that prison conditions were likely unconstitutional and that the state had to take several measures to protect incarcerated people from COVID-19. This settlement preserves those measures, as well as sets a benchmark for the number of people who need to be released to reduce the prison population.
“The most effective way to protect people in prison from the COVID-19 virus is to reduce the number of people in prison,” said Whitley Carpenter, a lawyer for Forward Justice, one of the civil rights groups representing the plaintiffs in the case.
To date, 47 people in state prisons have died from COVID-19, and another 9,481 have tested positive for the virus, while the disease has hospitalized 310 incarcerated people since the pandemic began, according to records provided by the Department of Public Safety. As of Feb. 15, 3,586 prison staff members tested positive for the virus, and at least nine have died.
Research from around the country has shown that prisons serve as reservoirs and distribution centers for infectious diseases, meaning that communities around prisons tend to have higher rates of COVID-19 than communities without prisons.
This dynamic has also contributed to Black North Carolinians, who are overrepresented both in the prison population and prison staff, being hit especially hard by the pandemic.
Spurred on by the lawsuit, NAACP v. Cooper, originally filed in state court in April 2020, the state prison system has already been releasing people at an increased rate. According to the settlement, “prison population has decreased from 34,437 in February 2020 to 28,581 as of February 2021.”
“If we’re looking at the population reduction overall, we have seen a significant reduction, and then this will continue to add to that, absolutely,” Carpenter said.
Picking up the pace
The regular churning of the prison population brings thousands of people behind the walls and releases thousands more each month. The settlement agreement accounts for the “early reentry” of 3,500 people at least 14 days before their projected release date, to be carried out over the next 180 days.
These releases will be in addition to the regularly scheduled releases the prison system will see over the same period.
At the end of the 180 days, the new prison population will create a cap for the number of people who can be incarcerated until the pandemic is over.
If the number of people in prison goes up 10% or more, the prison system will have to quickly release people to prevent further crowding, according to the settlement.
The motivation for settling the case now is that it speeds up the time frame for getting some people out of the prisons while the pandemic persists, according to Carpenter.
Susan Pollitt, an attorney for Disability Rights NC, a plaintiff in the case, agreed with this objective. The releases will allow for more social distancing in the prisons and will ease the burden on medical staff and facilities, she said.
The settlement also establishes an anonymous complaint system for incarcerated people who think the prison system is not following the rules for COVID-19 mitigation. The state agreed to create this system after plaintiffs complained that people in prison faced intimidation or retaliation for speaking out. Numerous incarcerated people complained both to the courts and the media about conditions inside the prisons.
Who will run the complaint system, as well as other details about how the settlement will be carried out, “will be worked out in the days and weeks to come,” according to a press release from DPS.
“We had a number of advocacy and outreach efforts to state officials with no response, as if nothing could happen,” Carpenter said.
“The lawsuit really ensured that the state put protections in place for incarcerated people, and lives were saved. I don’t think that we’d see the releases that we have seen without it, and I think the same can be said for what’s going to happen as a result of this settlement.”
by Jordan Wilkie, Carolina Public Press