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Settlement secures release of 3,500 incarcerated people from state prisons

Amanda Marriner poses for a virtual portrait on Thursday, Mar. 4, 2021. Marriner's wife will be paroled on Mar. 8, 2021.

A recent legal settlement will result in 3,500 people incarcerated in North Carolina being released. 

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit included the N.C. NAACP, ACLU of N.C., Disability Rights North Carolina and several incarcerated individuals and their family members. It challenged the conditions in North Carolina prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

After more than 10 months of litigation, the ACLU of North Carolina and other plaintiffs announced on Feb. 25 that they had reached a settlement agreement with Gov. Roy Cooper and other defendant-respondents.

Sandy Marriner, whose legal name is Dowell, is one of the plaintiffs in the settlement. She will now be able to return home from Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women and was approved for parole last week. 

Amanda Marriner, Sandy's wife, said she hopes the settlement and securing the early release of those incarcerated will expose urgent health and safety risks in state prisons. 

Amanda Marriner poses for a virtual portrait on Thursday, Mar. 4, 2021. Marriner's wife will be paroled on Mar. 8, 2021.

“The public should not throw people away, or condemn somebody to death, or not care about their health and safety, or think that they're less entitled to basic care,” Marriner said.  

The legal settlement ensures the early release of 3,500 people over the next six months — 1,500 of whom will be released over the next three months. The agreement also maintains many existing COVID-19 mitigation efforts and calls for an anonymous complaint system. 

“This settlement is a momentous achievement in the fight to protect incarcerated people during this public health emergency, but it does not end our advocacy,” Leah Kang, staff attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina, said in the statement. 

The coalition of civil rights organizations and individuals filed an emergency petition in April of 2020, arguing that close proximity and unsanitary conditions during the pandemic constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Reducing the population is meant to make conditions for both those released and those remaining in the facilities safer.

In June 2020, Wake County Superior Court Judge Vinston Rozier ordered the state to reduce the prison population and institute new measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19. 

The prison population has decreased steadily from over 34,000 in February 2020 to over 28,000 as of February 2021, the lowest it has been since 1995. 

Still, the N.C. Department of Public Safety has conducted more than 9,700 positive COVID tests and confirmed the deaths of 50 prisoners. 

Although the settlement outlines specific measures to mitigate the spread of COVID, there is still some uncertainty about how the agreement will be implemented. 

Susan Pollitt, a supervising attorney at Disability Rights North Carolina, said the parties still have to resolve how the anonymous complaint system will be administered. 

John Bull, prisons communications officer for the N.C. Department of Public Safety, said in an email that specific details regarding portions of the settlement will be worked out in the coming days and weeks.

Elizabeth Simpson is Sandy Marriner's lawyer and the associate director of Emancipate NC.

Elizabeth Simpson poses for a virtual portrait on Wednesday, Mar. 3, 2021. Simpson is the associate director of Emancipate NC and one of the attorneys who litigated the early releases from NC state prisons.

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She said there are multiple avenues for early release — including the supervised release of people eligible for parole that were sentenced prior to Oct. 1994 through the Mutual Agreement Parole program. 

Simpson said she hopes the settlement agreement will also have long-term effects on the way North Carolina approaches incarceration. 

“It will be a recognition that our state was over-punishing — over-incarcerating — its citizens, and that actually detracts opportunities for community and is not the best way of handling harm,” Simpson said. 


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