COVID Settlement Means NC Will Release 3,500 Incarcerated People Early

By Ruthie Kesri

North Carolina will release 3,500 prisoners in state custody early over the next six-months after N.C. civil rights groups struck an agreement with Governor Cooper’s administration.

Under the terms of the agreement, the lawsuit, which alleges that prison conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic have violated incarcerated persons’ constitutionally-guaranteed rights, will halt for 180 days while state officials work to release at least 1,500 people within 90 days. Indeed, if the state abides by its current commitment to reduce almost one-eighth of its nearly 28,000-person prison population, the plaintiffs — which include the North Carolina-based NAACP, ACLU of NC, Disability Rights North Carolina, and several people in prison and their families — have agreed to dismiss the lawsuit.

Since the start of the pandemic and resulting lockdown measures, the State Department of Public Safety has reported at least 47 deaths of incarcerated people from COVID-19, while more than 9,500 have been infected.

As of this article’s publication, this settlement is one of the largest numbers of incarcerated individuals being ordered released in the country. Individuals will be released through several state programs, including discretionary sentence credits, the state’s Extended Limits of Confinement program for those serving sentences for crimes not related to another person, and the Mutual Agreement Parole Program which will reinstate or restore others to post-release supervision or grant early release to those participating.

“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 the Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the North Carolina NAACP, in a press release.

Duke School of Law Senior Lecturing Fellow Thomas Maher — who was appointed Special Master in the litigation and previously served as executive director of the Wilson Center — echoed these sentiments, postulating that “there is a possibility for this decision to have a long-term impact if the prisoners who are released are shown to do well in society.”

North Carolina is not the only state to have announced plans to release some of its incarcerated population early amid COVID-19 concerns. In November, the Governor of New Jersey signed a bill allowing for the release of 2,000 people from state prisons. An appellate court in California called for the release or transfer of half the inmates at San Quentin State Prison last October.

In addition to the agreement to release some people behind bars, the North Carolina Prison System has also reduced the state’s prison population by nearly 16% since the lawsuit was initiated, according to the same press release. In an effort to reduce risks associated with the pandemic, the state has further agreed to provide vaccine incentives for people in prison, along with the implementation of an anonymous complaint system for ill inmates.

Ruthie Kesri is an undergraduate student at Duke University working this semester with the Wilson Center for Science and Justice.