North Carolina civil rights groups on Thursday signed a contract with Governor Roy Cooper’s government to allow for the early release of 3,500 inmates in state custody over the next six months.
If the state honors its commitment to reducing about an eighth of its 28,000-plus prison population, the North Carolina branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People would dismiss its lawsuit for violating prison conditions during the coronavirus pandemic, according to inmate rights the state constitution.
A judge in Wake County Superior Court granted a stay Thursday that would allow the parties to uphold the terms of the settlement they negotiated.
At least 47 inmates have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, while more than 9,500 have been infected, according to the State Department of Public Safety. Almost a quarter of the 39,000 offenders tested since March 2020 received at least one positive diagnosis.
“What is happening in North Carolina prisons is the convergence of two pandemics, both caused by racism and classicism – COVID 19 and an unfair criminal justice system,” said a statement by Anthony Spearman, president of the NC NAACP. “Even as we celebrate that monumental step in our endeavors through this lawsuit, we must acknowledge that a disproportionate number of those marginalized, oppressed and endangered by detention during the pandemic are melanin-rich, work poor, or both. ”
State prison officials vowed to “continue to prioritize the health and safety of staff and inmates.”
“As stated in the agreement, the department will drive forward the actions outlined over the next 180 days, most of which are already being carried out on a daily basis,” said Timothy Moose, deputy general secretary, public safety, adult correction and youth justice division.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, Disability Rights North Carolina, and other stakeholders joined the NAACP’s complaint filed in Wake County in April 2020. More than 34,000 people were detained at the time of the complaint. The state has since reported a 16% decrease in the number of people detained.
Under the terms of the proposed agreement, the Department of Public Security would have 90 days to release at least 1,500 offenders and another 90 days to release the remaining 2,000. Those who have been released early since February 15 would count towards the total of 3,500.
North Carolina isn’t the first state to announce plans to release inmates. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed a bill last fall that will allow more than 2,000 people to be released from state prisons in November, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-partisan group that pursues the release of inmates. A California appeals court ordered the release or transfer of half of the 2,900 inmates at San Quentin State Prison last October.
The North Carolina ACLU described Thursday’s settlement as a “significant achievement,” but urged Cooper and prison officials to return as many inmates to their families as possible.
Photo via Ethan Hyman / The News & Observer.