The North Carolina Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit last week seeking help for incarcerated people facing an outbreak of COVID-19, but civil rights groups aren’t giving up that easily.
The dismissal was without prejudice, which left open the possibility that the lawsuit could be refiled in a lower court.That’s exactly what the plaintiffs did today. The ACLU of North Carolina, Disability Rights North Carolina, Emancipate NC, Forward Justice and the National Juvenile Justice Network have re-filed the lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court in an effort to force Gov. Roy Cooper and other public officials take further action to stop the deadly spread of COVID-19.
It was filed on behalf of the NC NAACP, Disability Rights, the ACLU of NC, three people who are currently incarcerated, and a spouse of an incarcerated person.
“We hoped that the Supreme Court would take this up in the first instance given the unprecedented high stakes and the closing window of time to save lives,” said Kristi Graunke, legal director for the ACLU of NC. “But we will continue the fight in the lower court. The state and governor have clear constitutional duties to prevent mass death and suffering among incarcerated people in their custody.”
The 24-page lawsuit seeks an immediate order compelling officials to reduce the prison population in order to enable the social distancing that experts agree is necessary to prevent the spread of this deadly virus.
As of 3 p.m. on April 20, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS) reported on its website 274 incarcerated people who have tested positive for COVID-19, and an additional 570 tests are pending. That number is likely inaccurate though, because it was also reported today that at least 350 people at Neuse Correctional Institution have tested positive. The majority of cases are concentrated there, because that’s where officials decided to undertake mass testing initiative.
DPS has announced several criterion for reviewing the release of 500 incarcerated people from custody due to the threat of COVID-19, but advocates argue it’s not enough. The corrections system already operates at about 8% over capacity, and DPS would need to release at least 2,647 individuals from custody to provide minimal protection for incarcerated people and correctional staff.
“This legal action seeks to avert a human rights disaster in North Carolina,” said Virginia Knowlton Marcus, CEO of Disability Rights North Carolina. “The large-scale outbreak at Neuse Correctional shows just how overcrowded, unhygienic prisons are a tinderbox for COVID-19. Many people with disabilities will be at highest risk of death. Public officials and courts must act swiftly and sensibly to reduce our prison population.”
Whitley Carpenter, a staff attorney at Forward Justice, said the numbers in North Carolina correctional facilities are rising by the hour, and deaths there are completely preventable.
Cooper has unfettered clemency powers to release people from prison, but has not used it as a response to the pandemic.
“Condemning people to die is not only morally wrong, but the cruel and unusual punishment that incarcerated people will face as the virus spreads through our correctional facilities is unconstitutional,” she said. “While we are disappointed in the [high] court’s decision, we are more resolved than ever to continue fighting for the rights of those who are currently incarcerated.”
Read the full lawsuit filed today below.