North Carolina judge rules state must establish plan to test every prison inmate for COVID-19
© WikiMedia (Michael Coghlan)
North Carolina judge rules state must establish plan to test every prison inmate for COVID-19

Wake County Superior Court Judge Vinston Rozier ruled, on Monday, that the North Carolina prison officials must come up with a plan for testing every inmate for COVID-19 and must drastically reduce the number of inmate transfers between prisons.

The ruling comes after NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit arguing that the actions of the state’s prisons have left its inmates especially vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. Rozier, despite siding with the plaintiffs, has not yet issued an official order. Instead, he has given the state until June 22, roughly two weeks, to develop a plan for testing all of the state’s inmates, which will then be submitted to the court and the plaintiffs’ advocates for approval. If the state’s plan is found to be insufficient, it may be rejected wholesale, or Rozier may issue a full order containing components of the state’s plan.

Noth Carolina has tested 6 percent of its state prison population. The outbreaks in North Carolina prisons have been some of the country’s worst and resulted in the deaths of at least five inmates and one nurse.

Rozier has heavily criticized the state prison system’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, stating that they “failed to provide substantial COVID-19 testing” and transferred inmates “without properly protecting those inmates or preventing the spread of COVID-19.” In his memo, he also stated that, “These actions, at the very least, lie ‘somewhere between the poles of negligence at one end and purpose or knowledge at the other.'” He has justified his ruling by stating, “this Court holds that the risk of irreparable harm is present, including the risk of COVID-19 rapidly spreading throughout the vulnerable prison population, along with the substantial risk of death and long-lasting disability stemming from the disease.” That risk is not localized exclusively to the prison population but extends to the staff at those facilities and the communities surrounding them.

The state reduced the number of inmates transferring between facilities in April in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus. However, by May, most prisons had resumed inmate transfers between facilities for both increases and decreases in security status. This culminated last week when state officials began transferring large numbers of inmates previously held in county jails to state prisons. In his ruling, the judge made it clear that “There should be no transfer of any inmate (other than for medical/health reasons or immediate risk) unless the inmate is given a test,” or the inmate is placed “in isolation for 14 days as suggested by the CDC.”

In addition to the plan to test all inmates, Rozier also has announced that the state should submit a plan to address the ongoing disparities between COVID-19 responses at different facilities. The ruling marks a significant win for advocates challenging the poor treatment of prisoners throughout the pandemic. It is being heralded as a success for those calling for further prison reform.

For more on COVID-19, see our special coverage.