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Judge Refuses To Intervene In NC Prisons' Virus Response

Prison Bars
Michael Coghlan
Flickr Creative Commons

A judge on Wednesday rejected requests of several offenders and civil rights groups exhorting him to tell North Carolina corrections leaders to reduce the prison population further to protect inmates from COVID-19.The denials from Superior Court Judge Vince Rozier came after he received an extensive report he demanded last week from prison officials on what wardens are doing to discourage the virus' spread in the more than 50 prisons. The plaintiffs who are serving time behind bars have said in affidavits they were worried for their health if they remained in prison.

Lawyers for the state argued in court documents that Gov. Roy Cooper's administration was best equipped to protect the health and safety of prisoners and had responded vigorously. The prison system has sent home several hundred additional offenders that were otherwise imprisoned, blocked visitations and stopped taking in offenders from county jails. The plaintiffs contend more meaningful action is needed.

More than 640 offenders in about a dozen prisons have tested positive for the new coronavirus, and five of them have died. The Department of Public Safety said this week that more than 500 of them are now deemed to have recovered, based on government health guidelines, and are no longer in medical isolation.

Rozier wrote that granting the plaintiffs' requests for intervention required meeting a high threshold of evidence and urgency, which apparently they didn't meet.

Department spokesperson Diana Kees said Rozier's order and the report the prison system sent to the judge speak for themselves. "The Division of Prisons will continue working diligently to keep our staff and those in our custody safe during this pandemic," she said.

Disability Rights North Carolina, one of the plaintiffs, was disappointed with the decision and reviewing its legal options. They and others said prisoners would be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment unless more physical space was provided to them for social distancing.

"We remain concerned for the safety of people living and working in (state prison) facilities, especially those that are at high risk for serious illness and death if they contract the virus," Disability Rights attorney Susan Pollitt said in an email.

Most of the prisoners presumed recovered are housed at the Neuse Correctional Institution in Goldsboro, which underwent prisonwide testing four weeks ago. There have been 467 positive tests among inmates at Neuse.

Statewide, more than 15,800 positive tests have been reported as of Wednesday morning, with nearly 600 deaths, according to Department of Health and Human Services data. The agency estimated this week that more than 9,100 who have tested positive are likely to have recovered from their symptoms.

The state prison system population has fallen by 2,000 offenders since mid-March to about 32,750 inmates as of Wednesday. No systemwide testing has occurred, however, with about 1,300 tests conducted so far.

Additional prisoners went home  in recent weeks due to initiatives designed to increase social distancing behind bars by reducing the offender population. 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.

Case totals continue to grow at the state's meat-processing facilities, reaching more than 1,560 at 26 outbreaks in plants in 17 counties, a DHHS spokesperson said Wednesday. There were nearly 1,000 cases a week ago.

The department has declined to release the names of the plants, citing in part a health confidentiality law. But company officials have confirmed positive cases at North Carolina plants run by Smithfield, Mountaire Farms and Butterball.

The Tyson plant in Wilkesboro, where local health officials have confirmed an outbreak, was closed temporarily while a deep cleaning occurred over the weekend.

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