COVID-19, News

Report: NC receives failing grade in response to COVID-19 in jails

In a report released this month, the ACLU and Prison Policy Initiative gave North Carolina a failing grade after evaluating each state’s actions to save incarcerated people and facility staff from COVID-19.

Researchers found that most states have taken very little action in response to the pandemic, and while some states did more, no state leaders should be content with the steps they’ve taken thus far, states an article about the report.

“The results are clear: despite all of the information, voices calling for action, and the obvious need, state responses ranged from disorganized or ineffective, at best, to callously nonexistent at worst,” it states. “Even using data from criminal justice system agencies — that is, even using states’ own versions of this story — it is clear that no state has done enough and that all states failed to implement a cohesive, system-wide response.”

North Carolina received its failing grade because of a combination of things, including for not desegregating data about COVID-19 in the prisons by race, not releasing enough incarcerated people and for not committing to testing all residents, though the latter has changed in the past couple weeks.

The ACLU of NC and other civil rights organizations filed a suit against North Carolina and the Department of Public Safety (DPS) for not protecting individuals in prison. A judge issued a preliminary injunction, and DPS has since unveiled a plan to test all incarcerated people in its custody.

The state was also given a failing grade by the ACLU and Prison Policy Initiative because Gov. Roy Cooper hasn’t yet issued any executive orders for incarcerated people’s protection.

“The consequences are as tragic as they were predictable: As of June 22, 2020, over 570 incarcerated people and over 50 correctional staff have died and most of the largest coronavirus outbreaks are in correctional facilities, the report stayes. “This failure to act continues to put everyone’s health and life at risk — not only incarcerated people and facility staff, but the general public as well.”

Read the full report here, and each state’s report card here.

Courts & the Law, COVID-19, Defending Democracy, News

WATCH: Chief Justice Beasley delivers virtual State of the Judiciary address

N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley delivered the 2020 State of the Judiciary address Friday online.

Chief Justice Cheri Beasley virtually delivered the 2020 State of the Judiciary address today during the North Carolina Bar Association’s Annual Meeting.

The meeting was held online to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Beasley’s address focused on the judicial branch’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the modernization of the courts through the eCourts initiative and a commitment to access to justice, fairness and impartiality.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges that the modern judiciary and our courts have never before faced, and calls for racial justice have gripped the nation’s attention,” Beasley said. “But challenging times also present opportunities. COVID-19 has required us to think creatively about improving the administration of justice in ways that even a year ago seemed impossible. The demonstrations happening in North Carolina and across the nation have given us the opportunity to confront disparities in our justice system and ensure that the people of this state have trust and confidence that courts are a place where every case is decided based on principles of law and justice free from bias.

“And so, while this is truly an unprecedented and stressful time for our entire Judicial Branch and for the Bar, it is also an immensely hopeful time.”

Beasley is the North Carolina Supreme Court’s first Black female Chief Justice. She was appointed to the helm by Gov. Roy Cooper over a year ago after former Chief Justice Mark Martin resigned. Watch her full address below.

COVID-19, Defending Democracy, News

Advocates, UNC legal clinic partner to offer eviction hotline for Spanish-speaking tenants

Immigrant advocates and the Civil Legal Assistance Clinic at the UNC School of Law announced this week a new eviction defense hotline for Spanish-speaking tenants.

Evictions hearings that had been put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic resumed earlier this week after the expiration of a statewide moratorium. The recent Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act protects an estimated 30% of all rental units nationwide from eviction until at least July 25.

However, the majority of tenants don’t know if their dwelling qualifies, and also don’t know how to provide or demand that information in a court hearing, according to a news release.

The CARES Act Eviction Information Hotline, operated by UNC’s Civil Legal Assistance Clinic and immigration advocacy organization Siembra NC, will help Spanish-speaking tenants identify whether their dwellings are covered under the CARES Act, and will present them with information to help them advocate for themselves in eviction hearings.

“This service will give Latino tenants access to information that could help them avoid eviction if their landlord takes them to court,” said Andrew Willis Garcés, director of Siembra NC. “We know Latinos are less likely to have access to attorneys or even to be able to read a court summons posted on their door, and we’re grateful to the UNC Civil Legal Assistance Clinic for their help in making sure tenants know their rights.”

The Latinx community accounts for more than 45% of all coronavirus cases in North Carolina, despite making up only about 10% of the statewide population, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Nearly half of all Spanish-speaking tenants in the state surveyed by Siembra NC reported they were unable to pay their full rent in May. Latinx tenants have also sent Siembra staff sent dozens of photos of letters sent to them from landlords demanding full payment and threatening eviction.

Eviction creates negative collateral consequences for individuals and communities. Particularly during the pandemic, eviction is a major public health problem, the release states. Congress decided to prevent evictions temporarily from properties with federal subsidies, tax credits, or federally-backed mortgages, but landlords benefit from an information advantage as to whether the law applies.

“We are grateful for Chief Justice Beasley’s recent order, which requires landlords to state affirmatively whether or not their properties are covered,” said Kathryn Sabbeth, associate professor of law and director of the Civil Legal Assistance Clinic. “But we believe tenants should also get an opportunity to test the landlords’ claims and access the underlying documents. As it is, tenants are significantly disadvantaged because the supply of tenants’ lawyers has not kept up with the numbers of tenants facing eviction. With this hotline, we hope to make a small dent in equalizing the playing field.”

Individuals seeking assistance from the CARES Act Eviction Information Line should send a text message with their full address, and property name if known, to the hotline: (919) 590-9165. Tenants will then receive an information packet via both text message and U.S. Mail based on the research results for their property.

Information provided by hotline operators will include:

• short infographics designed for social media and WhatsApp groups
• a guide to CARES Act protections
• the actual language of the CARES Act eviction moratorium
• a guide to self-representation in an eviction proceeding
• a guide to requesting an interpreter in court
• documents tenants can bring to court and can use to show judges how the law applies

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, immigration, News

North Carolina dreamers heartened for their futures after Supreme Court ruling

Jocelyn Casanova

T he day before Jocelyn Casanova graduated high school, her mother told her she was an undocumented immigrant. She had crossed the desert with her when Casanova was just 4 years old in the hopes of finding a better life and of giving her daughter more opportunity.

“It was just kind of like ripping a Band-aid off,” said Casanova, 24, of finding out.

She wasn’t mad at her mother, but learning about her past meant her future was in jeopardy. She had already applied to colleges and wanted to pursue a career in law, but had to put those plans on hold because of her immigration status.

When the Obama administration created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects undocumented people from deportation who were brought into the country as children, she became a recipient, but there were still a lot of obstacles to her pursuing her goals.

She had to pay out of state tuition to go to a community college in North Carolina, where she grew up, and she couldn’t apply for federal aid. She worked three jobs to pay for school, and still, it wasn’t always enough.

“I’ve had to get really creative as far as bettering myself,” she said in a phone interview Thursday.

That includes putting aside dreams of becoming an immigration attorney in order to learn new skills and soak up all the opportunities she is afforded, in part because of DACA. Most recently, she was able to get an engineering degree through a company sponsorship and she works now as a software engineer in Raleigh. She continues to take classes at Wake Tech.

When the Trump administration rescinded the DACA program in 2017, it instilled a sense of fear in Casanova. She lived in the U.S. almost her entire life, but could suddenly be deported to a land mostly strange to her. She thought she was dreaming Thursday when she woke up to the news that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the administration’s decision to end the program was against the law.

“I had to do a double take; is this really happening?” she said. “I shed a couple tears because it was like a weight lifted off my shoulders.”

She said the decision is a victory, but immigrants and DACA recipients, also called dreamers, should not stop fighting for their future.

“We still need a permanent solution for our dreamers who are constantly trying to pursue the American Dream,” Casanova said. “It felt amazing to not be in limbo after walking down this path and not knowing where you would end up. Happiness is an understatement, especially during this uncertain time where we have a pandemic still going on, and our Black Lives Matter brothers are voicing their concerns with the justice system. Change is happening, and we should still continue to have these conversations as well as continue to count our blessings.”

Casanova is one of about 24,000 DACA holders who live in North Carolina, and among the 700,000 or so recipients nationwide. She said she is grateful to be in the U.S. and wants to continue to go to school, work and contribute to her community.

Oscar Romero is pictured left at a U.S. Supreme Court rally in the fall.

“Honestly all dreamers want, we’re hugging this country and we just want this country to hug us back,” she said. “Hearing this news was like getting a pat on the back. I definitely have a lot of hope and faith for the future. I know that we still have a long road to go down, but I’m very hopeful we’re going to see change.”

DACA is a temporary fix for recipients of the program, who don’t otherwise have a permanent path to U.S. citizenship. Last June, the U.S. House passed legislation that would safeguard the program and provide a pathway to citizenship. The bill has not been taken up in the U.S. Senate.

Still, the Supreme Court news from Thursday brought many people comfort this week. Oscar Romero, of Charlotte, said he was in complete shock when he read about the ruling.

“This was a turn of events that I don’t think anyone expected,” he said. “I just broke out into tears, just full joy. … While it doesn’t fix everything for us, it’s definitely a breath of relief for all of us who have been holding our breath this whole time.”I just broke out into tears, just full joy. -Oscar Romero Click To Tweet

The 25-year-old was brought to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 4. The DACA program changed the entire trajectory of his life, he said. Before the program, he couldn’t legally drive and he had to work jobs where he was paid “under the table.”

“It’s completely opened up so many opportunities for me,” he said, adding that he’s since finished college on a scholarship. “This is a great victory regardless of what lies ahead. Like Black Lives Matter, this is a topic that we shouldn’t just put away.”

Many of the dreamers who talked to NC Policy Watch had similar stories of how DACA helped them get to where they are.

Daniel Bello is no longer a DACA recipient — he has a green card now — but it was the program that helped him be able to go to college. Now he’s in his third year of law school at Campbell University.

He was cautiously optimistic Thursday about the high court’s ruling.

“I’m very happy, but I know that they’ll probably try to challenge it again,” he said.

Daniel Bello

Bello, 30, pointed out that DACA recipients undergo background checks and are required to meet certain standards to be eligible for the program. There are also a lot of misconceptions about immigrants.

“DACA recipients consider the U.S. our home, because we’ve been here our whole lives, and we love this country and just want a chance to participate,” he said. “Based on our record and education, we are likely to become a benefit to the economy in a very positive way.”

Carla Mena, also 30, told her story to Policy Watch on Thursday. She said there was an added pressure on the first generation DACA holders like herself to be successful and to pave the way.

“We are the oldest children of the first-generation immigrant community, and there’s a lot of responsibility in general when it comes to being the eldest in the line of children,” she said.

They live bicultural and bilingual lives and feel at times as if they don’t belong in one world or the other. Only dreamers can really understand what they go through at times, Mena said. And they fought hard before 2012 to be an active part of their communities.

“We were marching; we were doing hunger strikes; we were occupying officials’ offices,” she said. “I think that the biggest takeaway is we are not just hardworking when it comes to our jobs, we are hardworking for what we believe is right. We believe that we deserve better, that our families deserve better.”We believe that we deserve better, that our families deserve better. -Carla Mena Click To Tweet

The elder DACA holders are teaching the younger dreamers to also fight and to build resiliency. They are taking care of one other. Mena said in a lot of ways, they had an even harder time with the Trump administration’s rescission, because they grew up with the program available to them and then had to cope when it could just be taken away.

Casanova, one of those younger dreamers, said she is thankful her parents made the choice to bring her to the U.S. so she could have a chance at a better future. She encouraged her peers to vote — because DACA holders can’t — and to be a champion for immigrants.

“They are the real dreamers who had the dream of a better life for us, their children,” she said of her parents. “They didn’t want us to suffer like they did. We owe it to them to keep fighting for the American Dream.

“Like my mom always says to me in Spanish with everything I do, ‘Mija, echale ganas,’ meaning ‘Daughter, do your best.’ We must continue to give it our all because the fight is not over yet. We have to be strategic and organized about the upcoming battles.”

Courts & the Law, COVID-19, News

Judge orders COVID-19 protection of incarcerated people

Judge Vince Rozier released his order Tuesday that calls for more protection of incarcerated people in state prisons.

Rozier ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the case at a virtual hearing last week. He addressed the same issues in his Tuesday order that he did previously during his oral ruling: overcrowding and cohort-based social distancing, transfers and disparate levels of COVID-19 protection in different facilities.

He ordered the defendants to reconsider homes, facilities and programs willing to participate as early-release partners to improve an incarcerated person’s candidacy for release. He also outlined who should be considered for release at the state prisons to make space for proper social distancing.

Rozier’s ruling to grant a preliminary injunction is in response to a lawsuit from the ACLU of North Carolina, Disability Rights North Carolina, Emancipate NC, Forward Justice and the National Juvenile Justice Network asserting that the state’s failure to protect people in state custody from mass outbreaks of COVID-19 amounted to cruel and unusual punishment under the Constitution.

Read the full order below: