Prison conditions during COVID-19: Sandy’s Story

Sandy Marriner knew the risks factors for COVID-19 and feared for her life. As an incarcerated person with high-risk medical conditions, living in one of North Carolina’s prisons when the pandemic hit, Marriner had no choice but to rely on prison practices and staff to keep her safe in a crowded dorm.

But without masks or CDC-approved hand sanitizer, and no way to social distance or control the hygienic practices of those around her, Marriner knew the virus would “spread like wildfire” if it came into her dorm. “I am afraid I will die,” she said in early April 2020.

Marriner is one of five incarcerated people named in a lawsuit filed by Disability Rights NC, the ACLU of NC, Emancipate NC, Justice Forward, the Juvenile Justice Network and the NC Conference of the NAACP that challenged the conditions of confinement in NC’s prisons due to COVID-19.

The settlement

In February 2021, the state settled the lawsuit in an agreement that calls for the unprecedented early release of at least 3,500 people in custody, making it among the largest prison releases in the country achieved via COVID-19 litigation efforts. The settlement also ensures that the state takes important measures to mitigate the ongoing threat of COVID-19 in NC’s prisons, including through vaccination and testing, cohorting, transfer protocols, and monitoring and complaint processes.

DRNC receives national advocacy award for COVID-19 prison lawsuit

NDRN Awards Recognition Ceremony Video  (begin viewing at the 15:50 mark for DRNC award)

Recently, the National Disability Rights Network recognized DRNC with its annual Advocacy Award, noting the agency’s “outstanding work challenging the conditions of confinement in North Carolina’s state prisons during COVID-19.” 

Calling DRNC’s work “a model for all P&As,” NDRN Executive Director Curt Decker said, “I am always amazed how many different ways P&As are called upon to protect the rights of people with disabilities. And every time you accept the challenge. Disability Rights North Carolina has shown extraordinary leadership to the entire network by your work to secure the early release of 3500 prisoners at risk during the public health crisis and to protect the health and safety of prisoners remaining in state prisons.” 

DRNC will accept the award in a virtual video presentation next month, featuring Marriner and DRNC CEO Virginia Knowlton Marcus, Legal Director Emma Kinyanjui, Supervising Attorney Susan Pollitt, Attorney Luke Woollard and Litigation Counsel Lisa Grafstein.   

Kinyanjui stressed how tirelessly Grafstein, Pollitt, Woollard and our partner organizations worked to prepare the lawsuit. As the World Health Organization declared the pandemic on March 11, 2020, we knew that people who were incarcerated in North Carolina would experience a ‘prison pandemic.’ North Carolina is one of many states with a mass incarceration problem. More than 30,000 individuals were imprisoned statewide at the start of the pandemic. DRNC feared without fast intervention, thousands of incarcerated people could die.” 

Judge found prison conditions inhumane

The plaintiff’s affidavits portrayed horrific conditions in prisons. Coughing, sick people forced into dorms of 60 or more as corrections officers stood by, failing to provide medical attention or, in the worst cases, whisking the sick away in the night with no explanation. Woollard said their voices were critical in the case.

“With their testimonies, we were able to show the Court and the public their horrible situation – unprotected, uncared for, and unable to escape crowded dorms where their survival depended entirely on the prison leadership, who seemed at times more concerned with maintaining their public image than protecting people from the ravages of COVID-19,” he said.  “These voices were crucial to our successful efforts to increase testing (including mandatory staff testing), limit transfers, and ultimately achieve the early release of 3,500 people.”

Grafstein said the judge saw the humanity in the individuals. “The judge understood that these were people who did not deserve to suffer – who deserved to protect themselves, just as the rest of us were being advised to do. He found the state was failing to do enough to protect people and was likely in violation of our State Constitution’s prohibition against cruel or unusual punishment.”

The lawsuit’s success relied on the partnerships and collaborations with many, Pollitt said. “The success of this lawsuit, and NDRN’s recognition, must be shared by our allies and partners. It demonstrates the power of partnership,” she said, noting that even before we filed the lawsuit there was an important collective of public health experts, legal experts, and advocacy organizations who collaborated in a coordinated effort to urge the Governor, Commissioner of Prisons, Association of District Attorneys, Sheriff’s Association and Police Chief Association to swiftly act to effect the early release of incarcerated people as well as divert individuals from the prison system.

Collective effort led to systemic change but “our work is not done”

“When it quickly became apparent no such action was forthcoming, this collective effort provided the important groundwork we needed to file our cases so quickly,” Pollitt said. “We knew the situation in the crowded prisons was dire and swift action was needed.  In fact, the day we filed the complaint in the state trial court, 350 people tested COVID-19 positive at just one prison and NC has 55 prisons.”

The legal team understood it was important to represent individual plaintiffs, such as Marriner, but also to help everyone incarcerated in NC’s prisons, so several organizations, including DRNC, served as associational plaintiffs, which made the systemic relief possible, Grafstein said.

“By pursuing relief across the prison population, we are bearing witness to the inequities in the prison population.  Even now, our settlement is not producing discharges consistent with the racial makeup of the prison population, which is an issue we continue to pursue,” Grafstein said. “Our work is not done.”

Sandy’s happy ending

Marriner was released from prison in March 2021 and thinks about the people who remain incarcerated.  “I feel really bad for the people that I left behind due to the situation we were living in,” she said.  But she is also profoundly grateful to the legal teams that worked so hard on the lawsuit.  “I’m very very grateful and thankful to all the people that played a part in getting me out of there.  I know it was a group effort, and I never thought it would happen.”

Marriner finally feels safe, living happily with her wife, working, learning and adjusting to new technology, and enjoying things many people don’t give a second thought about – like having ready access to ice.  “It’s the simple things,” she said.