Settlement Will Help End ‘a Particular Kind of Nightmare’ For Some Incarcerated In NC

March 17, 2021   |   Leah Kang

On Feb. 25, the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and other organizational and individual plaintiffs represented by the ACLU of North Carolina, Emancipate NC, Forward Justice, Disability Rights North Carolina, and National Juvenile Justice Network reached a landmark settlement in NC NAACP v. Cooper. The case, filed on April 20, 2020, challenged conditions of confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic in North Carolina’s state prisons as unconstitutional. Several NCAJ members participated in the efforts, including Lisa Grafstein of Disability Rights NC and Whitley Carpenter and Aviance Brown of Forward Justice.

For people incarcerated in North Carolina’s state prisons, who are disproportionately people of color and people with disabilities, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a particular kind of nightmare. Incarcerated people have been forced to live close to each other, crowded into poorly ventilated dorms with dozens (sometimes over a hundred) other people. Masks, hand sanitizer, tests and life-saving vaccines have been provided inadequately or not at all. 

The result has been human suffering and death. Several large-scale COVID-19 outbreaks, including some of the largest in the country, have overwhelmed North Carolina’s prisons. Since last March, at least 50 incarcerated people have died from COVID-19 and thousands of others have been infected, despite the state’s constitutional duty to keep the people in their custody alive and safe. 

In June 2020, the Wake County Superior Court found Plaintiffs likely to succeed on their claim that these conditions violated Article I, Section 27’s prohibition against “cruel or unusual punishment” and granted a preliminary injunction. While it did not order the release of any incarcerated people, it did order the state to examine population reduction measures and implement testing protocols and safer transfer practices. This was followed by a December 2020 order appointing a Special Court Liaison to monitor the state’s prison population reduction efforts and COVID-19 response.

Under these preliminary orders and over nearly a year of litigation, the prison population decreased from over 34,000 to a current population of about 28,000 (approximately 16%) — the lowest the North Carolina prison population has been in over two decades.

The NC NAACP v. Cooper settlement will result in the early release of an additional 3,500 incarcerated people over 180 days. These early releases will further reduce the prison population when it is most needed and will have the most impact. The state has also agreed to implement and maintain important measures to mitigate the ongoing threat of COVID-19, including vaccination, testing and safe cohorting and transfer protocols.

The settlement is unprecedented. It is also common sense. North Carolina’s prisons have proved to be epicenters of COVID-19 contagion, putting at risk incarcerated people, prison staff and the general public. Public health and medical experts, including the World Health Organization, have uniformly called for the large-scale decarceration of carceral facilities as the key strategy for combating the pandemic. In fact, in many states, including AlabamaKentucky and New Mexico, governors have proactively used their executive powers to release people in jails and prisons to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

This pandemic has made clear that mass incarceration is a public health crisis. This settlement represents a significant achievement, but it should not end our advocacy on behalf of incarcerated people.

About the Author

Leah Kang

Staff Attorney at ACLU of North Carolina