Originally published in the Opinions of the News & Observer.

North Carolina’s recent increase in COVID-19 cases has been a disturbing reminder that this deadly pandemic is far from contained. 

As we continue to reopen our state in the midst of a national reckoning against racial injustice and police violence, our most vulnerable communities remain at risk – and none are more vulnerable than the thousands of predominantly Black and Brown people trapped in our crowded prisons and jails. 

The rampant outbreaks in North Carolina prisons have sickened hundreds of incarcerated people and staff, claimed scores of lives, and caused unconscionable human suffering. According to data compiled by the Marshall Project, 775 people incarcerated in North Carolina state prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, not including the outbreak at Butner Federal Correctional Complex. 

Responsibility for this crisis lies squarely with the state and federal officials who have failed to heed the advice of public health experts and take adequate steps to protect the people in their custody. From the beginning, public health experts have warned that reducing prison populations is vital to combating the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives. But their calls went unheeded. 

A new ACLU report drives home just how abysmal the state’s response has been. In a survey of all 50 states, North Carolina received a failing grade of F+ for its handling of the crisis. North Carolina received especially low marks due to Governor Roy Cooper’s continued refusal to sign an executive order to halt jail admissions, release medically vulnerable people, or allow people whose sentences are nearly up to be released.

Earlier this month, a North Carolina Superior Court judge ordered state officials to come up with a plan for ensuring that people across its state prisons will be kept safe. The ruling was in response to a lawsuit from the ACLU of North Carolina, Disability Rights North Carolina, Emancipate NC, Forward Justice, and the National Juvenile Justice Network asserting that the state’s failure to protect people in state custody from mass outbreaks of COVID-19 amounted to cruel and unusual punishment under the Constitution.

State officials now plan to test everyone in state prisons as well as staff, but this is a woefully insufficient step. No matter how many tests are administered, the science is clear that if incarcerated people cannot practice social distancing, the virus will continue to spread. 

The egregious failure to address the public health emergency is part and parcel of the systemic racial injustice that pervade every aspect of our criminal legal system. Black people in North Carolina are four and a half times more likely to be imprisoned than white people, making up more than 50 percent of the incarcerated population. They were sent to prison by a system designed to perpetuate white supremacy. Now COVID-19 threatens to turn every prison sentence into a death sentence.

These ongoing prison outbreaks are not just an affront to human dignity and constitutional rights – they also threaten to derail North Carolina’s fragile recovery, becoming tinderboxes for this disease that could spark outbreaks throughout their surrounding communities. Prisons are not islands.

The death of a nurse at Caswell Correctional Center is a tragic reminder that prisons employ staff who return daily to their homes and families, which means that every North Carolinian has a stake in addressing this crisis. 

While nothing can bring back the lives that have already been lost, it is not too late for state officials to prevent the death toll from rising further. 

The most important step Governor Cooper can take is to release people from these death-trap conditions and into settings where they can practice social distancing and keep themselves and others safe. 

The health and well-being of all North Carolinians depends on it.