Inmates at Neuse Correctional Institution walk outside behind fences in Goldsboro on May 15. The prison has been the site of a major outbreak of COVID-19. Lawyers for the ACLU and N.C. Department of Public Safety argued in court Wednesday about the effectiveness of the state's protection of prisoners during the pandemic. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Wmforo
Inmates at Neuse Correctional Institution, apparently unmasked and not socially distanced, walk outside behind fences in Goldsboro on May 15, 2020. The facility was the site of a major COVID-19 outbreak in the first months of the pandemic. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Wmforo

A Superior Court judge Friday appointed a “special master” to oversee parts of the North Carolina prison system’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a step that civil rights groups have been requesting since they sued the state back in April

Thomas Maher, the head of Duke University’s Wilson Center for Science and Justice, will oversee the prison system to make sure it is in compliance with court orders.

In Friday’s hearing, Wake County Superior Court Judge Vinston Rozier Jr. cited the state’s ongoing “failure to make modifications” to a key program that would allow the state to decrease its prison population as a reason for appointing Maher. 

Since April, North Carolina-based civil rights groups have argued in court that the state is not releasing enough people from prison as a means of protecting them from the spread of COVID-19, which has caused 25 reported deaths of people in state custody.

In June, Rozier ruled that the civil rights groups, which represent several people currently incarcerated in North Carolina, were likely to succeed in their case and that conditions in the prisons were likely unconstitutional. As a result, the prison system had to expand testing for COVID-19, limit transfers between prisons and begin releasing more people.

Those same issues were at play in Friday’s hearing, which Rozier called in response to rising hospitalizations, numbers of cases and the temporary closure and consolidation of some prisons that the Department of Public Safety announced the day before Thanksgiving. 

At the end of the hearing, Rozier issued a number of orders from the bench, which he will formalize in writing, likely next week.

The state needs to release more people from prison and has to test all prison staff for COVID-19 every two weeks. Rozier already issued an order for more people to be released and was apparently not satisfied with the rate at which the prison system was following his order. 

Likewise, the state recently increased its testing rates for staff, though Rozier said the rising rates of COVID-19 throughout the state made an even further escalation necessary.

Maher’s main task will be to make sure that the defendants are complying with the court’s orders, both in the release of people from prison through the extended limits of confinement and in making sure the state is testing enough people in prison, including staff, for COVID-19.

Discriminatory response?

Rozier also said that if there was a “conflict in the equity in which the program is being administered” to release people from prison, he would consider other avenues for releasing people. The plaintiffs have alleged that there is a racial disparity in the people selected for release under the state’s current program. 

Maher will also have the authority to review other aspects of prison administration, Rozier said, including the care people receive when they test positive for COVID-19.

In an effort to control the spread of the virus, the prisons have put people who test positive for COVID-19 either into a housing unit with a group of other COVID-positive people or into a “medical quarantine.” 

Plaintiffs brought allegations to the court in a September hearing that the quarantine was more akin to solitary confinement than a strategy for medical care. Though Rozier decided not to hold the state in contempt in that hearing, he issued orders that medical quarantine should not be punitive. 

Rozier first publicly considered appointing a special master in July, when he found that the state was out of compliance with his orders by “willfully” failing to provide accurate information to the court.

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Jordan Wilkie is a former Report for America corps member and former reporter at Wmforo. To reach the newsroom, email us at [email protected].