Skip navigation

North Carolina Criticized for Prisoner Transfers During Pandemic

On June 16, 2020, North Carolina’s Wake County Superior Court ordered the state Department of Public Safety (DPS) temporarily to cease the majority of prisoner transfers. Except for medical emergencies or cases of life endangerment, ordered Judge Vinston Rozier, Jr., DPS may not move prisoners unless they have first been tested for the COVID-19 or held in medical quarantine for 14 days.

The decision granted a request filed in a suit mounted by the state chapters of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, which were concerned with DPS prisoner movements during the pandemic.

On April 1, 2020, DPS reported the first active cases in its prison population of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. By the next day, there were two infected prisoners at the state’s Neuse Correctional Institute (NCI).

That same day, April 2, 2020, some 200 prisoners at the Goldsboro facility staged a protest, refusing to leave the recreation yard and return to their cells until officials promised stricter measures in response to the pandemic. Instead, 36 of the protesters were transferred to the Pasquotank Correctional Institution (PCI). Shortly afterward, the maximum-security prison near Elizabeth City – which previously had no COVID-19 cases – suffered an outbreak, with 19 of the new arrivals testing positive for the disease.

Meanwhile, by mid-April, 2020, some 460 of the remaining prisoners at NCI were infected. It was DPS’s worst outbreak and also one of the worst in the nation at the time.

Later that same month, the state started testing prisoners at the Correctional Institute for Women (CIW) near Raleigh. Over 90 positive results came back, making it the second-largest outbreak in North Carolina prisons.

In an effort to limit the spread of the disease, DPS announced on April 6, 2020, that it would curtail prisoner transfers between facilities. Soon after, it suspended the intake of prisoners from county jails. But between April 12 and May 25, 2020, there were still over 1,100 prisoner transfers. After DPS announced it would resume normal transfers on May 26, 2020, another 2,600 prisoners were sent to different facilities by June 12, 2020.

On June 6, 2020, 35 female prisoners were transferred from CIW to the Canary Unit a block away. One of them had symptoms of COVID-19, her fellow prisoners reported – fever, nausea, coughing and loss of taste and smell.

Prisoner Jordan Hillenbrand, who also was moved, said she had been requesting a test for the coronavirus since April, but despite suffering some disease symptoms herself, she had not been tested as of June 18, 2020. DPS spokesman John Bull said that since the transfer, DPS officials “aren’t aware of any confirmed, active cases of COVID-19” at CIW.

“Moving people means you’re moving COVID-19,” said New York-based public health consultant Alison O. Jordan. “And you’re exposing more people in more communities every time you do it. It’s just the math.”

Judge Rozier agreed. “Defendants are transferring incarcerated individuals between facilities without properly protecting those individuals, or preventing the spread of COVID-19,” he opined, resulting in prison conditions that “are likely unconstitutional.

On August 11, 2020, DPS announced the results of a six-week, $3.3 million program that tested every one of the state’s prisoners. Out of a total 29,062 tests, 619 came back positive – a 2.1 percent rate far lower than the 7-to-9 percent rate in the state’s general population and drastically lower than the positivity rate in other state prison systems such as New Jersey (16.3 percent), Tennessee (13.6 percent), Michigan (10.8 percent) and Texas (9.8 percent).

DPS had previously reported 1,459 positive prisoner cases, of which 1,210 had met the criteria to be released from medical isolation, an 83 percent recovery rate that officials believe reflective of the state’s entire prisoner population to explain its current low positivity rate. See: NC NAACP v. Cooper, Wake County Superior Court, Case No. 20-cvs-500110. 

 

Related legal case

NC NAACP v. Cooper, Wake County Superior Court