The plaintiffs in a court hearing Wednesday over the threat of COVID-19 to incarcerated populations painted a stark picture of what it’s like to be in a North Carolina prison during a pandemic.
Social distancing isn’t possible; the Department of Public Safety (DPS) doesn’t have a plan to further decrease the population and is in fact planning on increasing it (by 1,700 to 1,800 people); the rate of infection in the state prisons is unknown and DPS doesn’t have a comprehensive testing plan in place; and DPS isn’t taking special steps to protect its most vulnerable incarcerated people from the deadly virus.
Leah Kang, a staff attorney at the ACLU of North Carolina representing the plaintiffs, highlighted stories of incarcerated peoples’ deaths, but also of those who are sick who have been denied or delayed medical care and those who had COVID-19 but “recovered” and will continue to suffer long term and permanently debilitating effects from the virus.
“There is preventable human suffering and death that has and will continue to occur in DPS prisons,” Kang said. “It calls upon this court for a remedy. … This is cruel and unusual punishment, your honor.”
This is the second time Kang has argued in front of Judge Vince Rozier in Wake County Superior Court asking him to grant a preliminary injunction and appoint a special master to help DPS figure out how to implement proper social distancing and prioritize releasing medically vulnerable incarcerated people, as well as those individuals who are close to their release date.
Attorneys for DPS told another story — the agency is complying with, and in some cases exceeding, guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Yes, the agency has resumed transfers of incarcerated people from prison to prison, said the attorneys, but it has been taking precautions to keep them safe and transparent with the public about the policy changes during the pandemic.
Orlando Rodriguez, Assistant Attorney General, said social distancing is possible in prisons, just not at night because there isn’t space to move bunks far enough apart — but it doesn’t mean there aren’t options for people to distance in other ways. He also said the plaintiffs’ requests for relief are based on the premise that public health best practices are a standard of law, but they aren’t, and the constitution doesn’t require perfection. Read more