Advocates, experts: DPS COVID-19 initiative not enough to save incarcerated peoples’ lives

Advocates and criminal justice experts acknowledge the North Carolina Department of Public Safety’s announcement yesterday to release some incarcerated people from prisons is a small step in the right direction, but said it is not enough.

To put the announcement in perspective, a staff attorney at Forward Justice noted that more than 50 prisons in North Carolina are potentially releasing 500 incarcerated people — the number DPS is reviewing — but that wouldn’t even remove 10 individuals from each facility.

Forward Justice is a law, policy, and strategy center dedicated to advancing racial, social and economic justice.

“Every step toward protecting people and communities from this unprecedented disease is absolutely worthy of celebration,” the staff stated in an email. “And yet, the potential release of 500 does not meet the scope of the problem or exigency of the circumstances. We have a duty to continue to tell the truth about the lived-reality people who are prisoners in North Carolina, their family members, and those who work in prisons are waking up to today, which remains untenable [and] unsafe.”

The staff said Gov. Roy Cooper and DPS have a legal duty to meet the urgent crisis the pandemic presents within the prison facilities, and the Constitution protects those imprisoned in the state against their failure to do so.

“It will take all of us to get this right; the advocacy community, those in government, the courts, family members and friends, support services, the media, and the people most vulnerable to this disease who are continuing to cry out for safety,” they added.

The DPS Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice released its first six incarcerated individuals from custody Thursday, and they will continue to serve their supervised sentences in the community. The other 500 incarcerated people DPS announced they would review for release fit into a narrow set of criterion that factors in public safety, age, health considerations and scheduled release dates.

Cooper said at a press conference yesterday that population reviews would continue, but experts say he and DPS will need to move faster to make a real impact.

Brian Elderbroom

Brian Elderbroom, president of consulting firm Justice Reform Strategies, calculated that as of Monday, North Carolina was operating at 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.

The calculation is based on DPS’ daily inmate count and the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission’s (SPAC) report with the operating capacity.

“Every elected official and criminal justice practitioner must act urgently to save lives right now, but our state leaders also need to reckon with a hard truth,” Elderbroom said. “North Carolina has an incarceration crisis that has been laid bare by this pandemic and we can not go back to business as usual. The SPAC projection showing significant growth over the next decade, at a time when most states are safely reducing prison populations, was an alarm bell before COVID-19, and decarceration is more important now than ever before.”

He said North Carolina would need an “all hands on deck” approach to decarceration soon to prevent losing lives. He also pointed out that both Republican and Democratic governors in other states, including Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Connecticut, have implemented measures and or used clemency powers to address their prison populations.

“It is unusual,” Elderbroom said of Cooper’s silence on using his unfettered clemency powers. “There are plenty of governors across the nation who have stepped up to meet the moment.”

He added that it’s also fully within DPS’s authority to temporarily suspend technical probation or parole violations that can land a person in prison. By doing so, the agency would stem admissions into jails and prisons and protect populations on the inside and communities on the outside from exposure.

Elderbroom said there is room for North Carolina to do more, and “failing to act is going to cost lives.”

Citlaly Mora

Similarly, Citlaly Mora, spokesperson for the ACLU of NC, said the DPS announcement is insufficient.

“The belated steps that Governor Cooper and Secretary Hooks announced today are insufficient to ensure that basic constitutional protections are met,” she said in an email.

“These measures are not enough to keep incarcerated people, prison staff, and communities safe during this pandemic. The number of people that have so far been released does little to ensure that social distancing is possible for those who remain incarcerated and does not match the urgency of the current, extremely dangerous situation. As a matter of public safety for all, they must do more to significantly reduce the prison population before it is too late.”

Forward Justice and the ACLU of NC are two of several civil rights groups who are suing, along with incarcerated people, Cooper and Hooks to seek emergency action from the state Supreme Court to decarcerate as many people as possible before a major outbreak.

And outbreaks happen fast. The Federal Correctional Complex in Butner reported its first COVID-19 case, a staff member, on March 27. A little over two weeks later, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons is reporting 58 incarcerated people at the Complex with the virus, along with 26 staffers. Four people who also had been incarcerated there died after contracting COVID-19.

Advocates are hoping officials will act before a similar situation unfolds in the state prisons.

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