Courts & the Law, COVID-19, News

North Carolina prisons reports first COVID-19 death out of Pender Correctional

The North Carolina corrections system has announced its first death of an incarcerated person from medical complications due to COVID-19.

The Department of Public Safety (DPS) will not identify the man who died, who was in his 50s and allegedly had underlying medical conditions, according to a news release. They cited the “family’s right to privacy and the confidentiality of prison offender records” as the reasons for not identifying him.

The person who died had been housed at Pender Correctional Institution in Burgaw. He began showing symptoms of a viral infection on April 8, according to officials, and was “promptly isolated from the population” and tested for the virus. The positive result came back two days later.

Officials reported offering “constant medical attention,” but said the man was hospitalized on April 13. His condition continued to worsen and he died Tuesday at the hospital.

“Any death is a tragedy, and we must continue our efforts to do all we can to try and flatten the curve of COVID-19 in Prisons,” said Todd Ishee, Commissioner of Prisons. “The health and safety of the staff and the men and women in our custody is of paramount importance.”

As of this afternoon, Pender shows only two infected incarcerated people and three pending tests. There are 301 total incarcerated people in North Carolina prisons who have tested positive for COVID-19 and 648 pending tests, according to a tally on DPS’ website.

The DPS has taken a number of measures to try and prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, including suspending visitation, taking a two-week hiatus from accepting new incarcerated people from county jails and reviewing a very small percentage of people in its custody for early release. Advocates and public health officials have said it won’t be enough to combat the outbreak.

They’ve begged Gov. Roy Cooper to use his unfettered clemency powers to release more people from prisons, but he has refused thus far. There is a lawsuit pending in Wake County Superior Court seeking emergency action to help incarcerated people who are not safe from the spread of the virus.

COVID-19, immigration, News

Elected officials pledge stimulus checks to help immigrants during pandemic; here’s how you can too

Several elected officials from Raleigh and Durham have pledged to share their federal stimulus checks with immigrants who are cut off from COVID-19 aid.

The pledges to donate money are part of a #ShareYourCheck challenge started by the Latinx grassroots empowerment organization, Siembra NC, to encourage people to contribute part or all of their COVID-19 stimulus checks to its new COVID-19 Immigrant Solidarity Fund.

The federal government is sending a one-time stimulus check to some Americans as part of a $2 trillion COVID-19 response bill known as the CARES Act. Individuals who earn less than $75,000 per year will receive a $1,200 check by the end of 2019, with an additional $500 for each qualifying dependent child under 17. Married couples under the threshold will receive $2,400.

At least 157 North Carolinians have already pledged to share their checks with the fund. The elected officials who have taken the pledge include Durham Mayor Steve Schewel, along with Durham City Council members Mark-Anthony Middleton, Charlie Reece, Jillian Johnson and Javiera Caballero, Durham County Commission Chair Wendy Jacobs and Durham County Commissioner Heidi Carter, as well as Raleigh City Council members Saige Martin and Nicole Stewart.

“Moments like this define who will rise and who is left behind,” Martin stated in a Monday news release. “As Federal programs struggle to reach those that qualify, it’s clear to me that we must give back to those who are the backbone of this country, yet, too often do not qualify for aid. I call on my fellow residents with any capacity to join me in donating their stimulus check or any amount to the Siembra Solidarity Fund. Let’s ensure we all rise together.”

The New American Economy research group estimates there are over 317,100 undocumented immigrants living in North Carolina who paid more than $639 million in federal, state and local taxes in 2018. Yet, even U.S. citizens married to undocumented immigrants who file jointly with their spouses are ineligible for stimulus checks.

As part of its COVID relief effort, Siembra NC is standing up for families in Stewart Detention Center in Georgia — the closest Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility — and they converted their 24-hour detention hotline to a COVID relief referral service. The group is also providing Spanish-language information to workers, business owners and others on how to stay safe, access testing and aid and defend their rights as rent comes due and managers force them to work without proper safety measures.

The organization kicked off its fundraiser Saturday with a “Sábado Gigante” Facebook Live telethon hosted by younger immigrant members of Siembra NC who also pledged their stimulus checks. Over the course of 12 hours, 219 donors gave more than $13,000, surpassing the initial $5,000 goal.

Still, the group is encouraging more donations for those residents who are able to contribute.

“These funds are a critical lifeline for North Carolina taxpayers who work in restaurants, hotels or as domestic workers and have lost most or all of their income, and have been blocked from receiving state or federal aid,” said Siembra spokesperson Andrew Willis Garcés. “Beating this pandemic requires all of us to work together to fill gaps in our social safety net, and this effort to create a ‘people’s stimulus’ is one way to step in where government programs are falling short.”

The live broadcast from Saturday’s fundraiser can still be viewed in four parts, and included a cooking demonstration from James Beard-nominated Raleigh chef Oscar Diaz, and performances by Durham rocker Cristy Road Carrera, Raleigh drag queen “Tesoro” and 18 others. It’s already had more than 21,000 views.

The telethon funds already benefited seven Raleigh immigrant women whose husbands were detained by ICE since January. The funds also contributed to the broader solidarity fund, which will provide relief for those undocumented families who are shut out of federal stimulus checks.

“We’re encouraging everyone who can to donate,” said Durham’s Caballero. “There are many ways to help those who are struggling, and this fund is one of them.”

North Carolinians who want to help can both take the pledge to share their stimulus checks and make donations online. All of the funds raised are re-granted to North Carolinians in need.

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

JUST IN: Civil rights advocates continue to fight for incarcerated people after dismissal in NC Supreme Court

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.

2020 04 20 NC NAACP v Cooper II Compl (002) (Text)

COVID-19, News

Juvenile justice highlights COVID-19 response in new online post

North Carolina juvenile justice officials are highlighting their efforts online to keep youths safe from the spread of COVID-19.

They published a blog post earlier this week outlining changes within the system to help keep families connected. The changes, the post states, have helped contribute to reducing the daily juvenile detention population by 25 percent since the beginning of March, from 202 to 151 on Monday.

The reduction is notable, especially as the state Supreme Court considers an emergency request from criminal justice and civil rights advocates to release as many adults and youths from detention as possible ahead of a major virus outbreak in facilities.

In addition to implementing changes in facilities, such as suspending visitation and screening kids and staff who come into the buildings, juvenile justice officials have also focused on alternatives to detention, according to the new post. It’s a major component of how officials have brought down detention population.

During the pandemic, those efforts were increased to include:

  • Reviewing juvenile cases for those who might be appropriate for release, and bringing them to the attention of the detaining judges for approval of release to community-based services.
  • Seeking other alternatives to detention for juveniles who committed minor violations of their probation. For example, requesting the court to allow a juvenile to serve court-ordered detention time for such a violation following the coronavirus crisis.
  • Increasing the use of electronic monitoring and other alternatives to detention.
  • Requesting judges rescind, in appropriate cases, outstanding bench orders for secure custody on juveniles with complaints for non-violent offenses.

William Lassiter, deputy secretary for Juvenile Justice, has assigned a team to review all juvenile cases that are eligible for release and work with community-based partners to ensure effective transitions can occur in the youth detention centers (YDC’s), which are longer-term facilities. Prior to releasing any juvenile from a YDC, staff must ensure that the home and community environments are safe, supportive of the juvenile’s continued growth and able to meet the juvenile’s needs in the areas of education and mental health treatment, the post states.

Since March 1, 9 percent of the YDC population (16 juveniles) have been released back to their home or to a community-based step-down program. Read the full blog post here.

Officials from juvenile justice, along with adult corrections, will hold a media call at 3:30 p.m. to discuss further efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Follow NC Policy Watch for updates.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

4th Circuit denies legislative bid to move old redistricting case out of state court

Remember when Common Cause, the North Carolina Democratic Party and a group of voter sued lawmakers over partisan gerrymandering of the state legislative maps — and won?

Well, the group just had another win in federal court. Lawmakers had asked the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a lower court’s order that didn’t allow them to transfer the case from state to federal court — even though the lawsuit alleged state constitutional wrongdoings. 

The underlying case was decided last year by a three-judge panel from Wake County Superior Court, which ruled the districts were illegally gerrymandered for partisan gain, violating the State Constitution. They ordered new districts be drawn, which were used in the recent primary and will be used again in the upcoming election.

The 4th Circuit three-judge panel presiding over the related appellate case released their opinion today after January arguments in Richmond. The judges are Judge Roger Gregory, Judge Diana Gribbon Motz — both appointed by former President Bill Clinton — and Judge Julius Richardson, a President Donald Trump appointee.

“To support their removal, the legislators claimed, among other reasons, that they possess an enforcement role with respect to state laws,” the ruling states of one of the main arguments before them. “We disagree and conclude that they have failed to explain why they are enforcement officers.” The other argument before the judges had to do with the lower court declining to award the plaintiffs in the case fees and costs, and they agreed with that decision. Read the full order below.


Common Cause 4th Circuit (Text)