Civil Rights Groups File Emergency Lawsuit to Demand Governor, State Officials Protect Incarcerated People from COVID-19

The ACLU of North Carolina, Disability Rights North Carolina, Emancipate NC, Forward Justice, and the National Juvenile Justice Network filed a lawsuit today seeking emergency action to prevent the deadly spread of COVID-19 in the state’s prisons by reducing the number of people who are incarcerated in state facilities. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the NC NAACP, Disability Rights North Carolina, the ACLU of North Carolina, four people who are currently incarcerated, and a spouse of an incarcerated person.

The emergency petition was filed in the North Carolina Supreme Court and asserts that  Governor Cooper and NC Department of Public Safety (DPS) Secretary Erik Hooks have a legal duty to take action before a large-scale outbreak of COVID-19 in DPS facilities results in severe illness and death among incarcerated people, prison staff, and surrounding communities. It asks the court to order the immediate release of people who are particularly vulnerable based on the CDC’s heightened risk factors.

“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,” said Kristi Graunke, Legal Director for the ACLU of North Carolina. “North Carolina courts did not sentence thousands of people to suffer and potentially die from a pandemic. Numerous people who are incarcerated right now could be sent home to live safely with their families without posing a danger to the public. It is within Governor and Secretary Hooks’ power to save lives, and they must do so immediately.”

“Prison is no place to be during an unprecedented pandemic that has overwhelmed even the best healthcare systems in this country,” said Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, President of the North Carolina State Conference of the 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.”

The lawsuit comes two weeks after the ACLU of North Carolina, Disability Rights North Carolina, Emancipate NC, Forward Justice, the National Juvenile Justice Network, and other civil rights groups sent letters to Governor Cooper and the Department of Public Safety, urging officials to use their existing authority to expedite the release of certain people who are incarcerated, particularly the elderly and chronically ill, in order to protect those who remain incarcerated and avoid a public health crisis.

“COVID-19 will spread like wildfire in our overcrowded, unhygienic prisons, and present a health risk to entire communities,” said Virginia Knowlton Marcus, CEO of Disability Rights North Carolina. “Approximately 32% of people in prison have one or more disabilities. Conditions such as diabetes, COPD, heart conditions, and other disabilities place people at increased risk for serious consequences from COVID-19. The same is true for those over 65. The evidence is clear that we must act swiftly and sensibly to reduce our prison population, to mitigate the harm of this deadly disease.”

“State officials have known for weeks that action was needed to protect people living and working in North Carolina prisons,” said Daryl Atkinson, Co-Director of Forward Justice. “Public health experts and advocates warned Governor Cooper and DPS that prisons are breeding grounds for infectious disease and unless they took significant action, they would be leaving North Carolinians vulnerable to a massive outbreak of the virus. Now we fear that inaction could lead to a death sentence for vulnerable people.”

“If Governor Cooper doesn’t take immediate action to let folks out of prison, we will lose many precious lives to COVID-19,” said Dawn Blagrove, Executive Director of Emancipate NC.

This week, Butner Federal Correctional Complex reported that 60 people have tested positive for the coronavirus. State prison officials announced they will not allow any new people to be sent from local jails to North Carolina prisons for 14 days. However, they have not taken broad action to reduce the number of people who are already incarcerated.

A copy of the lawsuit can be found here.