The state chapter of the NAACP—along with the state ACLU, Disability Rights North Carolina, four state prisoners, and the spouse of an inmate—filed a petition today asking the N.C. Supreme Court to issue what’s called a writ of mandamus, forcing the Department of Public Safety to develop a plan to release inmates who are 65 and older, have underlying medical conditions, or will either be released soon or have been approved for work release. 

“Petitioners come to this Court in a time of unprecedented emergency,” the petitioners say. “In a matter of weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has spread at an alarming rate across the country, leaving thousands of deaths in its wake. Experts tell us the crisis has yet to hit its peak and emphasize that people who are incarcerated are in grave danger.”

To date, the petition says, the novel coronavirus has spread throughout at least six of the state’s 50 prisons, prompting the Division of Prisons to announce earlier this week that it would implement a two-week hold on accepting new prisoners—which, in turn, means county jails will have to hold inmates who are scheduled to be transferred to prison.

The state’s 35,000 adult inmates and 418 juveniles “live in close proximity and often unsanitary facilities,” the petition alleges. “They cannot engage in the social distancing that experts and the Governor have ordered the rest of us to undertake in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. When there is an outbreak, these individuals will be at the mercy of a prison system that is ill-equipped to handle a novel, deadly virus that has overwhelmed healthcare systems across the country.”

And an outbreak, the petition continues, will have a racially discriminatory aspect to it: “African Americans, who comprise 22 percent of North Carolina’s population, but account for 51 percent of the prison population, will disproportionately bear the devastation caused by a COVID-19 outbreak in DPS facilities. The data collected thus far shows that African Americans in the general population have been disproportionately impacted by this pandemic. That risk is compounded for African Americans who are confined to an environment where it is impossible to practice social distancing.”

Cooper and Secretary of Public Safety Erik Hooks have “the authority to release people from state custody through reprieves, commutations, pardons, and expedited release, and can suspend enforcement of technical probation and parole violations that pull released people back into the state’s overcrowded jails and prisons,” the petition says. “Yet, [they] have failed to meaningfully decrease the number of people in [DPS] facilities.”

Other states have taken action, the petition points out: California released 3,500 nonviolent inmates. New York released 1,000 who were incarcerated because of a parole violation. Colorado’s governor issued an executive order suspended restrictions on early release programs. Iowa expedited the release of about 7 percent of its prison population. The federal prison system prioritized home confinement. 

North Carolina has done none of that. 

Because the state hasn’t acted, the petitioners want the court to step in and order the release of elderly, vulnerable, soon-to-be-released, and low-risk inmates; direct Cooper to start commuting and pardoning inmates; direct Hooks to make parole available for more prisoners and reduce prison terms for medically or physically unfit inmates; order Community Corrections and Post-Release Supervision and the Paroles Commission to stop revoking parole and probation; grant all possible parole requests; release as many juvenile offenders as possible; and ensure that there’s a plan to keep the remaining inmates safe. 

“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,” state ACLU legal director Kristi Graunke said in a statement. “North Carolina courts did not sentence thousands of people to suffer and potentially die from a pandemic.”

“Prison is no place to be during an unprecedented pandemic that has overwhelmed even the best health care systems in this country,” added the Reverend Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the state 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 statement issued soon after the lawsuit was filed, Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry said her office “is actively reviewing Motions for Appropriate Relief in light of COVID-19 to identify people who can be safely released from prison, including those who are at high risk of illness due to age, those who were convicted of non-violent crimes, and those who are already scheduled for release in the near future. In appropriate cases, my office will consent to sentencing modifications; a judge must approve such an agreement and issue a final order.”

“As I’ve said before,” Deberry continued, “we all have a responsibility to try to stem the spread of COVID-19. Releasing individuals who do not pose a danger to the public can prevent them from being exposed in prison, create a safer environment for those who remain there, and help protect our entire community during this pandemic.”

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at 

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