3,500 NC prisoners are set to be released early following lawsuit settlement


RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A settlement has been reached in NC NAACP v. Cooper, a lawsuit challenging the conditions of confinement in North Carolina’s state prisons amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The settlement will result in the 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.

“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.”

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.

“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.”

The lawsuit was brought on by civil rights organizations, three individual incarcerated people, and a spouse of an incarcerated person.

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 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, a release from the NC NAACP denotes. 

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