The North Carolina Superior Court has advanced an emergency petition that calls on Gov. Roy Cooper and Department of Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks to create emergency responses to protect inmates from the coronavirus.
The original petition, filed in April with the state supreme court by advocacy groups, inmates and the spouse of an inmate, calls for the release of inmates who are over 65 or have a pre-existing health condition and are approaching an opportunity for parole. It also calls for the state to halt most efforts to revoke parole and take “concrete action” to better comply with CDC safety guidelines.
The preliminary injunction filed Monday, which ACLU attorney Dan Siegel said he believes shows support for the petition, requires both parties to provide more information about COVID-19 in the state prison systems and potential solutions to better protect inmates.
The lack of safety measures against the pandemic is compared to “cruel and unusual punishment” in the petition. It also calls for more inmates to be tested for coronavirus and to have social distancing measures in place.
“As the number of COVID-19 infections grow, they will overwhelm DPS’s medical services, leaving people with disabilities and underlying medical conditions without access to the routine care that they require to manage their health conditions,” the petition says.
The crowded facilities make it impossible for inmates to perform social distancing, advocacy groups said in the original petition. A lack of testing makes it hard to tell who has the virus.
“Our focus is on making sure that people are treated with humanity and dignity while they’re in facilities,” said Ricky Watson, executive director of the National Juvenile Justice Network, one of the plaintiffs. “If it requires new case laws to do that, so be it.”
The deputy communications director for North Carolina’s DPS, Diana Kees, said in an emailed statement, “The Department of Public Safety has heard the judge’s order, received his bench memo, and is consulting with the North Carolina Department of Justice to determine next steps.”
Testing for young inmates ramped up
A final ruling will be made later this month, several advocacy groups said. Since the petition was filed, the state has released 750 inmates (about 2% of the state’s inmate population) from state prisons, the ACLU said.
This comes as North Carolina’s coronavirus totals have continued to climb through early June and as barbers, restaurants and retail stores begin to reopen across the state. As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, 84% of North Carolina hospitals reported 261 more current hospitalizations than a month before.
The state had tested 1,955 incarcerated individuals by Tuesday afternoon, with 691 positive cases and five deaths. Three of those deaths occurred at Neuse Correctional Institution, a facility where 35% of the 701 tests results came back as positive.
While the petition calls for incarcerated youth and adults to get tested, the state has ramped up its testing in youth detention and development centers across the state, according to Kees.
By May 6, when over 13,000 people tested positive for coronavirus in North Carolina, only one youth held in custody had been tested. About a month later, the state had tested 110 incarcerated youths, according to Kees: 87 at the Stonewall Jackson Youth Development Center, four at the Chatham Development Center after a staff member contracted coronavirus and 19 at Edgecombe Youth Development Center. All tests were negative.
There have been no tests at the state’s eight other youth facilities, Kees said.
Between March 15 and Tuesday, DPS released or relocated 49 inmates — about 16% of the total — in youth development facilities, where juveniles usually serve their entire sentences. About half of them came from Stonewall Jackson. In that time 379 youths — about 25% of the total — in juvenile detention facilities, where they are typically held before trial, were released.
“It’s totally different. The juvenile facilities are night and day [from adult prisons],” Kees said. “For instance, you can social distance within a juvenile facility. Juveniles have individual rooms. There’s all kinds of things like that. It’s apples and oranges, really.”
Yet the petition argues that there are “grave” concerns about making sure incarcerated youth are kept safe: a ban on visitation increases the likelihood of trauma and isolation. Outbreaks at youth facilities will be particularly difficult to contain, it states, since young people are often asymptomatic when they contract coronavirus.
Both advocacy groups and DPS will provide more information to the Superior Court on coronavirus in state prisons and how to better protect inmates. The court will then make a final ruling.
“The fact that we have even made an attempt to get this done is going to help us to gain some inroads to how our structuring of our prison system works,” said the Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, president of North Carolina’s NAACP. “If indeed we are able to force the governor’s hand to do what the governor should have already done, then that’s going to be something going forward that’s going to be beneficial to all.”
This story has been updated.