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 / Carolina Public Press
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 / Carolina Public Press

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Civil rights groups and the state have two weeks to come up with a plan to test every person incarcerated in North Carolina.

Judge Vinston Rozier Jr. of Wake County Superior Court ruled Monday that the conditions inside North Carolina’s prisons were likely unconstitutional due to the state’s failure to provide substantial testing for COVID-19 to people in its prisons and for not following public health guidelines for limiting the spread of disease.

“We’re hopeful this ruling will help prevent further loss of life by forcing state officials to implement safety measures and release people from these dangerous conditions,” Leah Kang, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said in a press release. The ACLU is one of several civil rights groups representing the plaintiffs in the case.

[The latest: North Carolina coronavirus daily updates]

Rozier did not issue an order with his ruling, meaning that the exact consequences of his decisions are not yet known. Rather, Rozier gave the plaintiffs two days to create an order that he will review, share with the state defendants and use to issue his own order.

In keeping with his previous decision-making process in the case, Rozier requested additional information before he issued an order.

After the first court hearings in this case, NAACP v. Cooper, Rozier asked the state to provide extensive information on how the Department of Public Safety was responding to outbreaks of COVID-19 in its prisons.

DPS Secretary Erik Hooks and Gov. Roy Cooper, along with members of the Parole Commission, were the named defendants in the lawsuit.

In addition to a plan to test every person in state prison, Rozier asked the parties in the lawsuit for a plan to solve disparities between how different prisons are responding to the crisis. Both plans need to be presented to him by noon June 22.

The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in Superior Court on April 20 after it had been dismissed without prejudice by the N.C. Supreme Court.

Rozier ruled on the motion for a preliminary injunction in the case, which is a way of asking a court to take action on an urgent matter without waiting for the full process of a lawsuit to be played out.

To win on a preliminary injunction, plaintiffs in the case must show that they have a strong likelihood of winning the full case and that plaintiffs would “sustain irreparable loss” without the court’s intervention.

In this case, the irreparable loss is “the substantial risk of death and long-lasting disability stemming from the disease,” Rozier wrote in a memo he issued after his ruling. The memo is meant to guide the plaintiffs and defendants in the next steps of the case.

The ruling will have a substantial impact on the state’s prison system, possibly including the release of a significant number of people back to their communities.

“The Department of Public Safety has just heard the judge’s order, received his bench memo and is consulting with the North Carolina Department of Justice to determine next steps,” prisons spokesperson John Bull wrote in an email.

Prison litigation timeline

The judge’s order comes two months to the day after the case was originally filed with the state Supreme Court. Here is how it has played out.

Jordan Wilkie

Jordan Wilkie is a former Report for America corps member and reporter at Carolina Public Press.

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  1. We have a loved one who is incarcerated. He was moved from a small facility in Asheboro to Dan River. He has had few visits; there are no volunteers allowed to support the re-entry program. He has been incarcerated for 18 years, since he was 18. He is scheduled for release within 2 years. Since being at Dan River he had to stop his job, the guards refuse to wear masks despite requests to do so. The college classes he was been enrolled in is denied.