NC to release 3,500 state prison inmates early in COVID lawsuit agreement

Virginia Bridges
·4 min read

North Carolina will release 3,500 state prisoners early over the next six months under a settlement in a lawsuit filed over prison conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agreement calls for pausing the lawsuit for 180 days while state officials work to fulfill promises that include releasing at least 1,500 people within 90 days, according to legal documents.

A press release from some of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which include the N.C. NAACP, Disability Rights North Carolina, Forward Justice and three people who are in prison, called the settlement “a landmark” and one of the largest prison releases in the country amid similar lawsuits in other states.

“Today’s historic settlement is a step forward after nearly a year of advocating for the human lives of our neighbors who, in too many cases, have been treated as disposable,” said the Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the N.C. NAACP, in the press release.

How will the releases work? People will be released through several state programs, according to a Departent of Public Safety news release.

The state will award discretionary sentence credits to move some individuals to their mandatory minimum sentence sooner.

The state’s Extended Limits of Confinement program will allow some individuals to serve out their sentences at home or in transitional housing under the supervision of community corrections officers. To qualify, offenders must not be serving a sentence for a crime against a person during their current incarceration.

The state will reinstate or restore other individuals to post-release supervision or grant early release to those participating in the Mutual Agreement Parole Program.

What were the plaintiffs’ concerns? The settlement comes nearly a year after the plaintiffs filed the April lawsuit. It contends Gov. Roy Cooper, Secretary of the N.C. Department of Public Safety Erik Hooks and others aren’t doing enough to protect North Carolina’s roughly 30,000 people in state prisons from the coronavirus.

Concerns included overcrowding, prison transfers spreading the virus, and people being put in solitary confinement during quarantine.

“We’ve heard from hundreds of incarcerated people and their family members who rightfully fear for their lives, as they are trapped in our state prisons during this unprecedented public health crisis,” said Whitley Carpenter, staff attorney at Forward Justice in a press release. “This settlement agreement will play a critical role in quickly reducing the prison population during the time period when it is most needed and will have the most impact.”

What else is the prison system doing? The new release is in addition to a nearly 16% reduction in the state prison population since the lawsuit was filed, the press release states. The prisons’ current population of 28,659 is the lowest since October 1994, when Structured Sentencing went into effect.

In addition, the state agreed under the settlement to others actions to reduce the risks during the pandemic including providing vaccine incentives for people in prison, along with implementing an anonymous complaint system for them and notifying their emergency contacts when someone is seriously ill.

In June, Wake County Judge Vince Rozier issued a preliminary injunction, saying plaintiffs would likely succeed in proving the state’s actions had resulted in cruel and unusual punishment, which violates federal constitutional rights in the Eighth Amendment and a state law.

Rozier ordered the state to take a number of actions, including creating a plan to test all inmates and identify disparities and weaknesses in prisons’ response to COVID-19

In December, amid concerns about additional prison outbreaks and closing, Rozier appointed Thomas K. Maher, executive director of Duke’s Wilson Center for Science and Justice, as special master to consult with the state and the civil rights organizations to ensure there is compliance with the court’s orders related to reducing the population, testing, safe transfers and other concerns.

Forty-seven people in state prisons have died from COVID-19 related causes and 9,528 have tested positive, according to the Department of Public Safety.

Some actions the state took since then include testing prison staff every two weeks, installing nearly 4,000 air purifiers in state prisons to better filter out virus particles, and providing at least six three-ply cloth face masks to prisoners, according to the state’s website.