North Carolina will send 3,500 prisoners home early to avoid the virus

By Rachel Sherman, Izzy Colón and Chloe Reynolds

North Carolina has agreed to release 3,500 prison inmates early to reduce the risk that they will catch or spread the coronavirus in prison. The inmates will be released over the next six months to finish out their sentences in home confinement.

The release is the largest by any state since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a criminal justice research organization.

The virus has devastated prisons, jails and detention centers across the country. More than 500,000 inmates have been infected, and nearly 2,500 have died, according to a New York Times database.

Even so, most states have only reluctantly allowed vulnerable inmates to serve out sentences at home.

On Friday, Michigan authorities said that the more contagious and possibly more lethal B.1.1.7 virus variant had swiftly spread to more than 292 inmates in three prisons. Kansas and Maryland have also found inmates infected by the variant.

The North Carolina agreement came in settlement of a lawsuit that accused the state of operating overcrowded, unsanitary prisons that fed the spread of the coronavirus. Judge Vinston Rozier of Wake County Superior Court found in June that the conditions in North Carolina state prisons were probably unconstitutional.

Rozier wrote in the settlement agreement filed Thursday that the release of inmates was “necessary, based on the pernicious and present dangers associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Among those who will have priority for early release are inmates who have been convicted of nonviolent offenses, or who are medically vulnerable, 65 or older or due to be released within the next year.

“There was a chronic overpopulation problem in North Carolina’s prisons even before the pandemic,” said Kristi Graunke, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “The pandemic forced us all to confront just how dangerous overcrowding and mass incarceration can be for people. And we saw people getting sick.”

The releases would reduce North Carolina’s inmate population of 28,680 by about 12%.

New Jersey and California are the only other states that have agreed to similarly large early releases so far, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

The lawsuit in North Carolina, filed in April 2020 by the NAACP, the ACLU and other civil rights groups, sought the release of thousands of inmates to make space for social distancing of the rest. Initially, state prison officials and Gov. Roy Cooper resisted releasing significant numbers of prisoners, but after more than 9,500 infections and 47 deaths of inmates over 10 months, the governor’s office changed tack and agreed to the vast majority of the requested early releases.

Dory MacMillan, a spokesperson for Cooper, said in a statement that throughout the pandemic, the governor had directed prison officials to protect the health and safety of inmates and prison staff.

Beverly Brooks, whose son, Jonathan Brooks, is incarcerated in a North Carolina prison and caught the virus in January, said the agreement was both “long overdue” and insufficient.

Her son and others, Brooks said, were “being exposed to inhumane conditions — and it was costing their lives.”

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