RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – People calling for state leaders to reduce North Carolina’s prison population began a month-long demonstration Thursday outside the Executive Mansion. 

Decarcerate Now NC, a coalition of groups aiming to end mass incarceration, is urging Gov. Roy Cooper (D) to use his clemency power and take other steps to release some of the state’s prisoners immediately. 

It’s the third year the group is holding the demonstration, which began in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In a letter delivered to the governor’s office this week, the group called for the immediate release of those who are ill, elderly, in prison for technical violations of parole and those incarcerated as children.

The group also called for the commutation of death sentences for those “whose trials were unconstitutionally affected by racial bias.”  

“This has to be a priority. Mass decarceration has to be a priority,” said Daniel Bowes of the ACLU of North Carolina. “Especially at this point everybody acknowledges with the staffing issues in the state prisons, it’s not safe for anybody at this point.” 

Bowes called attention to the ongoing struggle to hire people to work in the state’s prisons, where there’s a 40 percent vacancy rate among correctional officers. 

Beginning in January, the Department of Adult Correction will become its own Cabinet-level agency, which will be led by Todd Ishee, who previously served as the state’s prisons commissioner. 

Ishee and leaders in the Dept. of Public Safety recently updated state lawmakers on efforts to address the hiring challenges, which exist in many agencies across state government. 

Public Safety Sec. Eddie Buffaloe said his agency has undertaken some steps such as offering retention and recruitment bonuses and adjusted some salaries to better compete with the market.  

Ishee said the state has had more success recently with retaining employees with the implementation of a step pay plan, safety initiatives and other steps. 

There are currently almost 30,000 inmates in the state’s prison system. That number came down during the COVID-19 pandemic as some prisoners at higher risk for complications from COVID-19 were allowed to serve out the remainder of their sentences at home. As part of a legal settlement in early 2021, the state agreed to the early release of at least 3,500 inmates. 

Members of Decarcerate Now NC called attention to recommendations made by the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, saying “not enough has been achieved to implement the task force’s crucial recommendations.” 

A spokesperson for the Governor said today his office and the clemency office “conduct thorough reviews of applications and will continue to do so.”

The group thanked Gov. Cooper for using his clemency power but urged him to take additional steps. 

Through Jan. 1, 2023, members of the group will march each day around the Executive Mansion, eventually completing 3,000 laps, which is one for every ten people in the state’s prisons.