Judge refuses to intervene in N.C. prisons’ virus response

North Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — 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 about 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 prison wide testing four weeks ago. There have been 467 positive tests among inmates at Neuse.

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