WASHINGTON – Parties have reached a landmark settlement in NC NAACP v. Cooper, a lawsuit brought by civil rights organizations, three individual incarcerated people, and a spouse of an incarcerated person, challenging the conditions of confinement in North Carolina’s state prisons as unconstitutional during the COVID-19 pandemic. The settlement will result in the unprecedented early release of at least 3,500 people in state custody, making it among the largest prison releases in the country achieved via COVID-19 litigation efforts. Additionally, the settlement will ensure the state takes important measures to mitigate the ongoing threat of COVID-19 in North Carolina’s prisons, including through vaccination and safe testing, cohorting, transfer protocols, as well as monitoring and complaint processes.
Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the state has 180 days to release 3,500 people currently in its custody. That window begins once the trial court grants a request to stay the case during that period. The parties jointly filed the stay request earlier today.
“Today’s historic settlement is a step forward after nearly a year of advocating for the human lives of our neighbors who, in too many cases, have been treated as disposable,” said Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the NC NAACP. “What’s happening in North Carolina prisons is the convergence of two pandemics both fueled by racism and classism – COVID 19 and an unjust criminal legal system. Even as we celebrate this monumental step in our efforts through this lawsuit, we must acknowledge that a disproportionate number of those marginalized, oppressed, and put in harm’s way by being incarcerated during the pandemic are melanin-rich, working poor, or both. NC NAACP continues to call on leadership of this state to join us in our mourning and in our hopes for a better future by ensuring equal justice and safety for all North Carolinians, including our neighbors living confined in our state’s prisons.”
“This settlement is a momentous achievement in the fight to protect incarcerated people during this public health emergency, but it does not end our advocacy,” said Leah Kang, staff attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina. “We urge the Governor and the Department of Public Safety to do everything in their power to return as many people to their families and communities as possible during this dangerous pandemic.”
“These 3,500 individuals would not have been freed absent the demands of the litigation, the consistent public advocacy by community members, and the scores of brave incarcerated people who have spoken out about the inhumane conditions and treatment they have endured,” said Elizabeth Simpson, attorney and associate director of Emancipate NC.
“This lawsuit was particularly necessary to protect the lives of incarcerated people with disabilities because we know many disabled people are at highest risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19 due to underlying chronic medical conditions,” said Susan H. Pollitt, senior staff attorney at Disability Rights North Carolina. “There are many people with severe disabilities in prison and the consistent pressure this case put on DPS helped ensure protections for them, and for all people who are incarcerated.” Pollitt also noted the case demonstrated another benefit to NC. “This shows we don’t have to incarcerate this many people in North Carolina. It saves both money and lives.”
“We’ve heard from hundreds of incarcerated people and their family members who rightfully fear for their lives, as they are trapped in our state prisons during this unprecedented public health crisis,” said Whitley Carpenter, staff attorney at Forward Justice. “This settlement agreement will play a critical role in quickly reducing the prison population during the time period when it is most needed and will have the most impact. We will continue to fight for further actions to protect the health and safety of the people who remain incarcerated in our state prisons.”
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, ACLU of NC, Disability Rights North Carolina, and several incarcerated individuals and their family members. They are represented by the ACLU of NC, Disability Rights NC, Emancipate NC, Forward Justice, and National Juvenile Justice Network, who filed this lawsuit in the Wake County Superior Court on April 20, 2020. At the time the lawsuit was filed, the prison population was over 34,000.
On June 16, 2020, the trial court granted a preliminary injunction ordering the state to examine population reduction measures and implement safer testing and transfer practices. The court followed the preliminary injunction with subsequent orders, including an order appointing Thomas Maher, former Director of the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law School, as Special Liaison to the Court to monitor the state’s prison population reduction efforts and its COVID-19 response.
The 3,500 early releases required under the settlement would be in addition to the approximately 16 percent reduction already achieved since the lawsuit was filed less than a year ago. The current population of 28,659 constitutes the lowest state prison population level since the enactment of Structured Sentencing in October 1994. The population was at its peak in 2010 at 40,279 individuals (see Figure 6, NC CRED).
The State will also continue to release incarcerated people who reach the end of their sentences.