This story first published online at NC Policy Watch. 

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety will release 3,500 people early from prison after settling a lawsuit which argued that their constitutional rights were violated by the treatment they have received during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a press release from the ACLU of North Carolina. The press release described the relief as among “the largest prison releases in the country achieved via COVID-19 litigation efforts.”

These 3,500 people will receive one of the three ways of relief within a 180-day period — some will be awarded lessened sentences, some will serve outside of prison through a program called Extended Limits of Confinement and others will be on post-release supervision or parole, according to a statement from the DPS. Currently, only those who are pregnant, on home or work leave with a release date this year, and others projected to be released this year qualify for the ELC program.

Originally filed in state court in April of 2020, the suit NC NAACP v. Cooper, involves multiple plaintiffs, including three incarcerated people and a family member, the NC NAACP, the ACLU of North Carolina, Disability Rights North Carolina, Emancipate NC, Forward Justice, and the National Juvenile Justice Network. The settlement was approved by Wake County Superior Court Judge Vinston Rozier, Jr.

Click here to view the “consent order for stay” which effectively puts the case on hold for 180 days as the agreement is implemented.

“What’s happening in North Carolina prisons is the convergence of two pandemics both fueled by racism and classism – COVID 19 and an unjust criminal legal system,” Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the NC NAACP said in the press release.

To date, 47 people have died of COVID-19 in North Carolina prisons, according to DPS press releases compiled by Carolina Public Press reporter Jordan Wilkie.

Rozier issued orders in June and August of last year, asking for a plan from the state and demanding more testing. In an order, Rozier called it necessary “to allow for early release of eligible individuals to the greatest and safest extent possible”.

He also appointed a special master, Thomas Maher, executive director of the Center for Science and Justice at Duke University, to ensure the state follows the rules after finding the state out of compliance with his previous orders.

Besides the initial 3,500 releases, the governor’s office also agreed to monitor and control the prison population, pledging to further send people home early if they were scheduled to be released within 90 days when a prison population grew by more than 10%.

The state will also adopt measures to educate and incentivize staff and residents to receive vaccines, and to strengthen safety measures related to transfers, providing PPE, as well as isolation for positive patients.

“This lawsuit was particularly necessary to protect the lives of incarcerated people with disabilities because we know many disabled people are at highest risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19 due to underlying chronic medical conditions,” Susan H. Pollitt, senior staff attorney at Disability Rights North Carolina said in the press release.

This settlement does not apply to county jails. Other individual petitions and complaints regarding incarceration conditions in jails and prisons are still filed frequently.