Several civil rights organizations are asking the North Carolina Supreme Court to help release as many incarcerated adults and youths as possible in the face of the rapidly spreading COVID-19 pandemic.
The ACLU of North Carolina, Disability Rights NC, Emancipate NC, Forward Justice, the National Juvenile Justice Network and five currently incarcerated men and women filed a lawsuit today seeking emergency action from the high court. It asserts that Gov. Roy Cooper and NC Department of Public Safety (DPS) Secretary Erik Hooks have a legal duty to take action before a large-scale outbreak results in severe illness and death among incarcerated people, prison staff and surrounding communities.
The lawsuit asks the court to order the immediate release of people who are particularly vulnerable based on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) heightened risk factors. Prison staff and people incarcerated in at least six state prison facilities have already tested positive for COVD-19.
“Without immediate action from [Cooper and Hooks], this trickle will undoubtedly become a torrent,” the court document states.
The organizations that filed suit, along with other civil rights groups, already sent letters two weeks ago to Cooper and DPS urging officials to use their existing authority to expedite the release of certain people who are incarcerated, particularly the elderly and chronically ill, in order to protect those who remain incarcerated and avoid a public health crisis.
NC Policy Watch has also released a four-part series examining the dire conditions in detention facilities, including inadequate access to medical care, the inability to practice social distancing and overcrowding in small spaces. Part two of the series found that Cooper has broad authority to commute incarcerated peoples’ sentences on an individual basis or broader for groups of people. He has refused to exercise that authority.
“Our state prisons are overcrowded, forcing thousands of people to live and work in dangerous conditions where it is impossible for people to protect themselves from this deadly disease,” said Kristi Graunke, Legal Director for the ACLU of North Carolina. “North Carolina courts did not sentence thousands of people to suffer and potentially die from a pandemic. Numerous people who are incarcerated right now could be sent home to live safely with their families without posing a danger to the public. It is within Governor Cooper and Secretary Hooks’ power to save lives, and they must do so immediately.”
The lawsuit states that when lives are at risk, the North Carolina Supreme Court also has substantial authority to grant relief.
“Courts across the country have already recognized that reduction of prison populations are necessary in this moment of crisis, and have used their authority to order such remedies,” the 36-page document states.
It cites cases from state Supreme Courts in Hawaii, New Jersey and Tennessee that have issued orders to address incarceration rates during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Prison is no place to be during an unprecedented pandemic that has overwhelmed even the best healthcare systems in this country,” said Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, President of the NC NAACP. “We cannot leave our brothers and sisters who are incarcerated — and who are disproportionately Black and Brown — to die behind bars during this global emergency.”
In a news release about the lawsuit, Virginia Knowlton Marcus, CEO of Disability Rights North Carolina, said approximately 32 percent of people in prison have one or more disabilities. Conditions such as diabetes, COPD, heart conditions, and other disabilities place people at increased risk for serious consequences from COVID-19. The same is true for those over 65.
“COVID-19 will spread like wildfire in our overcrowded, unhygienic prisons, and present a health risk to entire communities,” she said. “The evidence is clear that we must act swiftly and sensibly to reduce our prison population, to mitigate the harm of this deadly disease.”
This week, Butner Federal Correctional Complex reported that 60 people have tested positive for COVID-19. State prison officials announced they will not allow any new people to be sent from local jails to North Carolina prisons for 14 days. However, they have not taken broad action to reduce the number of people who are already incarcerated.
DPS has reported 14 incarcerated people who have tested positive for the virus, but it will not release statistics on the number of staff members who self-report COVID-19 symptoms or positive test results, or any other staff COVID-19 testing numbers.
“State officials have known for weeks that action was needed to protect people living and working in North Carolina prisons,” said Daryl Atkinson, Co-Director of Forward Justice. “Public health experts and advocates warned Governor Cooper and DPS that prisons are breeding grounds for infectious disease and unless they took significant action, they would be leaving North Carolinians vulnerable to a massive outbreak of the virus. Now we fear that inaction could lead to a death sentence for vulnerable people.”
Read the full text of the lawsuit below.