Judge orders outside expert to monitor N.C. prison system’s COVID-19 actions

Expert to oversee state's response to COVID-19 in prisons

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A judge ordered an outside expert, known as a special master, to oversee the North Carolina prison system’s response to COVID-19.

The order comes months after a lawsuit was filed by the ACLU on behalf of a coalition of advocacy groups, including the NAACP, challenging the way in which state prison leaders had responded to the pandemic.

A judge had previously entered an order requiring the prison system to take certain steps in response to the pandemic but had stopped short of requiring a special master.

Judge Vince Rozier, who has presided over the case, notified parties in the case of the hearing on Monday, days after WBTV uncovered the closure of three state prisons, which resulted in hundreds of inmates being bused to new facilities.

Friday’s hearing also came as the number of COVID-19 cases continued to spike in the state’s prison population.

“To say that I’m concerned is probably an understatement,” Rozier said of the ongoing COVID-19 numbers inside the prison.

An attorney for the ACLU, Leah Kang, argued on behalf of the plaintiffs. She opened her remarks at the hearing by highlighting the prison closures and inmate transfers.

The closures were not announced by the prison system until hours after WBTV asked for comment about the move.

“It is gravely concerning that defendants have engaged in the prison closures and mass transport that they did last week,” Kang said.

Kang also criticized the prison system for not working to release more inmates that had served their minimum sentence or could otherwise finish their sentence outside of prison facilities. A major issue in this case has been whether prison officials were doing enough to reduce the prison population and allow for more capacity to safely house inmates and slow the spread of COVID-19.

Kang also said the prison population has had a positivity rate of more than 17% compared to roughly 7% statewide.

An attorney for the state, Orlando Rodriguez, said the prison was at a record-low population and did not have issues housing inmates.

Rodriguez also cited percent positive numbers significantly lower than what Kang presented but did not elaborate on where his lower numbers came from.

The state did not file any evidence to support that contention or any other claims made in today’s hearing prior to going to court.

Rodriguez also pushed back on the notion that prison leaders closed three prisons in secret.

“That a news report causes a press release to be issued has nothing to do with this litigation,” he said.

In addressing the transfer of hundreds of inmates, Rodridguez said the moves were made in accordance with previous safety measures ordered by the court, including moving inmates in cohorts and testing as necessary.

Rozier, the judge, asked Rodriguez a series of question regarding how the prison system was evaluating inmates for release or alternative confinement.

He also asked about testing of prison staff. Rodriguez said, under current testing plans, prison leaders were doing roughly 18,000 tests each month for staff members, including regularly testing for staff at prisons with increased outbreaks and at intake facilities.

But, in his ruling at the end of the hearing, Rozier ordered all prison staff who have regular contact with inmates be tested every two weeks on an ongoing basis.

He also appointed Thomas Maher as a special master, to oversee issues related to testing, movement and releasing eligible inmates from prison.

Maher is a lawyer who serves as executive director of the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke University’s law school. He previously ran the state’s Indigent Defense Services.

A spokesman for the ACLU issued the following statement after Friday’s ruling:

“We applaud the court’s recognition that it is appropriate to appoint a Special Master to oversee the processes needed to protect people who are incarcerated during this pandemic. The state has continually failed to do enough to reduce the prison population. We look forward to working with the Special Master to implement steps that can save the lives of North Carolinians. We hope that the state will not wait for the Special Master to do more to protect people in its custody. Action is needed now, and the people of North Carolina are looking for leadership from state officials.”

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