June 10, 2020
Categories: COVID-19

North Carolina state prison inmates are likely facing unlawful “cruel or unusual punishments” in part because correction officials have failed to offer widespread COVID-19 testing within all correctional facilities, a judge said.

Superior Court Judge Vince Rozier, hearing a lawsuit filed by prisoners and civil rights advocates, wrote this week he would issue an order telling the plaintiffs and the state prison system to come up with a plan by June 22 to test all prisoners. He did not provide a deadline to complete testing.

Prison leaders have kept to a policy whereby mass testing has occurred when an outbreak in an individual prison warranted it. So far, facility-wide testing has occurred in two of the state’s 50-plus prisons, both of which house prisoners in open dormitories. Overall, nearly 2,000 tests have been completed in a prison system of well over 30,000 inmates, with almost 700 testing positive and five virus-related inmate deaths. Most of those testing positive are now presumed recovered.

In a memo, Rozier said he’s worried about disparate COVID-19 actions taking place at each prison and also wants a plan to address those differences.

“An inmate’s chances of contracting COVID-19 should not depend upon the facility in which the inmate is housed,” Rozier wrote Monday to attorneys who were preparing a draft preliminary injunction for him to sign. He added that state officials have “failed to provide substantial COVID-19 testing to accompany the crowded and communal social distancing protocols.”

Those lawsuit plaintiffs behind bars have said their lives were gravely at risk because they had no idea whether other inmates they live with have the coronavirus. They wanted to force state prison and parole officials to release more prisoners with preexisting health conditions and those qualified to reenter the community to serve the remainder of their punishments.

“No one should be condemned to die because state officials failed to uphold their basic obligation to protect the health and safety of the people in their care,” said Susan Pollitt, an attorney at Disability Rights North Carolina, which is also one of the lawsuit plaintiffs. “By demanding that state officials take the steps necessary to combat the spread of this disease, this ruling is a victory for our clients and for public health.”

The prison population has already decreased by 3,000 inmates since March as legal actions in North Carolina courts ground to a halt and the Division of Prisons released hundreds of at-risk, nonviolent offenders through initiatives. Some were older inmates with underlying health conditions. Prison officials also have used “sentence credits” more liberally for those nearing their minimum sentence release dates.

Rozier wrote that prison officials should reopen the process for early release and identify new factors for inmates to reach their sentence release dates sooner.

All of the “steps are to continue until the substantial risk of COVID-19 has been satisfactorily diminished,” he said.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, whose administration runs the prisons, and other state correctional officials have defended their safety measures as proactive and vigorous. State lawyers have argued prison officials were best equipped to protect the health and safety of prisoners.

In a statement released Tuesday, the Department of Public Safety said it was consulting with state attorneys to determine next steps in the case.