N.C. Court Appoints Special Master to Oversee Protections for People Incarcerated During the Pandemic
Raleigh, N.C. - After a hearing in Wake County Superior Court today, citing concern over the rising cases of COVID-19 in the state prisons, Judge Vince Rozier, Jr. modified previous orders in N.C. NAACP v. Cooper, a lawsuit brought to protect people incarcerated in state prisons during the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The court appointed Thomas Maher, Executive Director of Center for Science and Justice at Duke University, as a Special Master in the case. The Special Master will review the state’s “Extended Limits of Confinement” program (ELC), which permits incarcerated people to serve their sentences on home or community confinement, provide recommendations for releasing eligible incarcerated people for release, and ensure compliance with the court’s previous orders.
In addition to oversight of the processing and reviewing incarcerated people eligible for ELC, with assistance from North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services. The Special Master will monitor the State’s compliance with the court’s orders in the case, including its orders to engage in regular, monthly sample testing of the prison population, practice safe transfer practices, and ensure that medical isolation does not resemble punitive solitary confinement.
The court also authorized the Special Master to determine whether there are other avenues, in addition to ELC, to manage the prison population, which hovers at 30,000 people, even as the North Carolina Department of Public Safety has announced several prison closures this week.
In addition to the Special Master appointment, the court ordered the N.C. Department of Public Safety to test prison staff on a biweekly basis.
After the court issued today’s order, organizations representing the plaintiffs issued the following statement:
“We applaud the court’s recognition that it is appropriate to appoint a Special Master to oversee the processes needed to protect people who are incarcerated during this pandemic. The state has continually failed to do enough to reduce the prison population. We look forward to working with the Special Master to implement steps that can save the lives of North Carolinians. We hope that the state will not wait for the Special Master to do more to protect people in its custody. Action is needed now, and the people of North Carolina are looking for leadership from state officials.”
The ACLU of North Carolina, Disability Rights North Carolina, Emancipate NC, Forward Justice, and the National Juvenile Justice Network represent plaintiffs in the case, which include the NC NAACP, Disability Rights North Carolina, the ACLU of North Carolina, three people who are currently incarcerated, and a spouse of an incarcerated person.
More information about the case:
The initial complaint was filed on April 8, 2020.
On June 16, 2020, a North Carolina Superior Court judge ruled that plaintiffs were likely to win their claim that people incarcerated in North Carolina prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic are being held under unconstitutional conditions of confinement and issued a preliminary injunction ordering the state to manage its prison population, test incarcerated people, engage in safe transfer practices, including by testing and/or quarantining people before transfers, and prohibiting solitary confinement-like conditions in medical isolation.
The court recently held two hearings, on October 15, 2020, and December 4, 2020, where the parties presented evidence and argument about the ongoing spread of COVID-19 in the state’s prisons, the rising infection rates and deaths, and the need for reduction of the prison population.
The appointment of the Special Master and other order modifications were issued from the bench at the conclusion of today’s hearing.