Help is not coming for North Carolina’s incarcerated population facing growing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wake County Superior Court Judge Vince Rozier denied requests from incarcerated people and civil rights organizations to force Gov. Roy Cooper and the Department of Public Safety (DPS) to take more precautions to allow for social distancing.
His two-page order didn’t explain why he denied their requests, citing case law that injunctions like the one the plaintiffs requested are “generally disfavored and are only appropriate where the case is urgent and where the right is clear.”
Members of the organizations who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit vowed to keep fighting but didn’t specifically state they would appeal the decision. A spokesperson said attorneys are still reviewing and evaluating all legal options.
“We are disappointed that the court denied our motion for an emergency order to address this worsening and deadly crisis, but this fight is not over,” said Kristi Graunke, legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina. “We will continue to do everything we can to save lives and hold state officials accountable to what the Constitution requires: the protection of human beings in their custody who are imprisoned under conditions that put them at unacceptable risk of being infected with this deadly disease.”
On April 21, after the North Carolina Supreme Court denied a petition to take up the case, the ACLU of NC, Disability Rights North Carolina, Emancipate NC, Forward Justice, and the National Juvenile Justice Network filed the lawsuit in Superior Court. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the NC NAACP, Disability Rights NC, the ACLU of NC, three people who are currently incarcerated and a spouse of an incarcerated person.
“This fight goes on, but we cannot ignore the real and devastating human impact this ruling will have: real people will likely die,” said Dawn Blagrove, Executive Director and attorney at Emancipate NC. “Real families will mourn the unnecessary loss of loved ones, and those families will disproportionately be people of color.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, DPS reported 644 people in prison who tested positive for COVID-19. Five people have died from the virus.
The agency submitted detailed information last week to Rozier about how it was responding to the pandemic. The documents stated that incarcerated people were provided two masks and get two bars of soap per week, but it also included plans for how prisons can begin getting back to normal operations.
The plaintiffs had hoped Rozier would appoint a special master in the case to help DPS take a more aggressive approach to releasing incarcerated people and implementing more precautions to protect their health and their lives.
“The fact remains that what’s unfolding in our state prisons is a humanitarian disaster that endangers the lives of thousands of incarcerated people, prison staff, and our entire community,” said Susan Pollitt, supervising attorney at Disability Rights NC. “Regardless of this ruling, we will continue to advocate for the safety of people with disabilities and all vulnerable people in state custody.”
Read the full order from Wednesday below.