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Free at last: Settlement OKs release of 3,500 NC incarcerated people
Suit challenged conditions as unconstitutional
Published Monday, March 1, 2021
by Herbert L. White

A settlement reached between the North Carolina NAACP and the state will result in the release of at least 3,500 incarcerated people. A lawsuit brought by the civil rights organization charged living conditions in the state's prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic is unconstitutional.

North Carolina will release thousands of incarcerated people as part of a settlement between the state and the NAACP.

The agreement settles the lawsuit NC NAACP v. Cooper, which challenged the living conditions in state prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic as unconstitutional. As part of the settlement, at least 3,500 people will be freed, making it one of the largest mass releases via COVID-19 litigation. The state also agreed to take steps to mitigate COVID-19 in prisons, including vaccination, testing, transfer protocols, and monitoring. Under the terms of the agreement, North Carolina has six months to release the incarcerated.

“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,” said the Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the state NAACP. “Even as we celebrate this monumental step in our efforts through this lawsuit, we must acknowledge that a disproportionate number of those marginalized, oppressed, and put in harm's way by being incarcerated during the pandemic are melanin-rich, working poor, or both.”

In addition to the NAACP, plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed before Wake County Superior Court in April, were the American Civil Liberties Union of NC, Disability Rights North Carolina, three incarcerated people and their relatives. At the time of filing, 34,000 people were housed in state prisons.

On June 16, 2020, the trial court granted a preliminary injunction ordering the state to examine incarcerated reduction initiatives and implement safer testing and transfer practices. Subsequent orders included appointing Thomas Maher, former director of the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law School, as special liaison to monitor prison population reduction and the state’s COVID-19 response. 

“These 3,500 individuals would not have been freed absent the demands of the litigation, the consistent public advocacy by community members, and the scores of brave incarcerated people who have spoken out about the inhumane conditions and treatment they have endured,” said Elizabeth Simpson, associate director of Emancipate NC. 

The early releases under the settlement are in addition to the release of 16% of the state’s prisoners since the lawsuit was filed. North Carolina has 28,659 people behind bars – the lowest prison population since 1994. The incarceration record is 40,279, set in 2010. The state will also continue to release incarcerated people who reach the end of their sentences.

“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," said Susan H. Pollitt, senior staff attorney at Disability Rights North Carolina. “There are many people with severe disabilities in prison and the consistent pressure this case put on DPS helped ensure protections for them, and for all people who are incarcerated.

“This shows we don’t have to incarcerate this many people in North Carolina.  It saves both money and lives.”




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