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March 19, 2020

Coalition advocates for reduction in the number of people entering the criminal legal system and release of vulnerable people in prisons and jails to prevent a public health crisis

RALEIGH - As confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to spread across the state, a coalition of organizations today called for state officials to take action to protect incarcerated people, corrections employees, and the general public by reducing the use of imprisonment in North Carolina. Letters were sent to Governor Roy Cooper, the NC Department of Public Safety, the NC Conference of District Attorneys, the NC Association of Chiefs of Police, and the NC Sheriffs Associationto urge officials to take critical steps to protect the public health and human rights of people held in North Carolina jails and prisons.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility at Duke Law, Community Success Initiative, Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform, Disability Rights North Carolina, Emancipate NC, Forward Justice, North Carolina Justice Center, and North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services signed the series of letters asking officials to take necessary steps that include releasing people from jails and prisons who are not a threat to public safety, reducing the number of new people entering the system, and protecting the health of those currently incarcerated. The requests are in line with steps that have already been taken in several North Carolina localities and others across the country in recognition of the unique vulnerability of incarcerated people and correctional staff to the pandemic.

“People in prisons, jails, and detention centers are uniquely vulnerable in this moment of a public health emergency. People in confinement have no control over their own movement and are held in close quarters without adequate resources for hygiene, creating the perfect conditions for the dangerous spread of COVID-19,” said Chantal Stevens, Interim Executive Director of the ACLU of North Carolina. “It is essential that all government officials follow the recommendations from public health experts to stem the spread of the coronavirus in our communities by protecting the health and safety of incarcerated people, medical staff, and correctional officers. Several localities in North Carolina and states across the country have already taken critical steps to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated. All of North Carolina must follow suit if we are to slow the spread of this pandemic.”

“From policing, prosecution and pretrial hearings, to sentencing, confinement, and release, every aspect of the criminal legal system must come under intense scrutiny for how it responds to this national public health crisis,” said Tarrah Callahan, Executive Director of Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform. “We urge law enforcement across the state to significantly reduce the number of people who are arrested and detained in county jails, and court officials should review cases of individuals detained while awaiting trial and release individuals who pose no threat to society. Failure to act will only serve to increase the spread of COVID-19.”

“Just as Governor Cooper has taken bold action to limit public gatherings, he must also take bold action to reduce the number of vulnerable people held in our state’s prisons by utilizing his clemency powers and expediting release and parole to the elderly and chronically ill in our prisons,” said Daryl Atkinson, Co-Director of Forward Justice. “For the sake of our communities, to every extent possible our prisons should not needlessly keep people incarcerated who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. The lives of these people are quite literally in the governor’s hands.”

“It is not a matter of if, but when, the coronavirus breaks out in our prisons,” said Daniel Bowes, Director of the Fair Chance Criminal Justice Project at the North Carolina Justice Center. “The Department of Public Safety must ensure that people living in prisons have access to soap, warm water, and medical attention free-of-charge. People who are exposed to or diagnosed with COVID-19 that need to be isolated must be given access to reading materials, regular exercise, and the ability to call their loved ones and not be subjected to punitive conditions.”

View copies of individual letters below: