NC’s Prison Population Forgotten in Fight Against COVID-19, Advocates Say

Jamie Lau, center, speaks in a vigil calling on Gov. Roy Cooper to act on pardon and clemency requests with two of his clients released from prison after serving long sentences next to him, Calrutha Johnson and Ronnie Long. Kristie Puckett-Willliams of the ACLU of NC is on the right. (Image courtesy of Melissa Boughton)

By Sarah Ovaska

November 16, 2020

A coalition of criminal justice groups are holding a 58-day vigil to pressure Gov. Roy Cooper to do more to protect the 30,000 North Carolinians in prison from COVID-19. 

If Black lives truly do matter to Gov. Roy Cooper, he should use his clemency and pardon powers to help imprisoned North Carolinians, criminal justice advocates said Sunday. 

More than 30,000 people incarcerated in the state’s prisons, 60% of them Black or Latino residents, haven’t been adequately protected by Cooper’s administration, according to Decarcerate Now NC, a coalition of several criminal and racial justice organizations that held vigil Sunday outside Cooper’s home at the Executive Mansion.  The NC Vigil for Racial Justice and Freedom has been stationed outside Cooper’s official residence since Election Day, when North Carolina voters hired the Democratic politician for another four-year term. 

They plan on staying for a total of 58 days, to bring attention to what they say is dangerous and immoral inaction on Cooper’s part.  

“Thousands of lives, thousands, are hanging in the balance, because the state refuses to acknowledge that COVID-19 has become a death sentence within the prison population,” said the Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, the head of the state’s NAACP chapter. “The state’s response suggests that the lives of those in prison do not even matter.”

READ MORE: NC Facing Highest COVID-19 Numbers Yet

Cooper has said when asked that the pardon and clemency processes are important, but did not immediately respond to questions as to his lack of clemency actions while in office. He served as the state’s top prosecutor as the NC Attorney General for 15 years before he was elected governor. 

The coalition of criminal justice and racial justice groups are pushing Cooper to do more to follow through on his promise after the death of George Floyd to address the rampant racism in the criminal justice system. They want him to start by using his clemency powers to release rehabilitated prisoners, some of whom have spent decades behind bars and are at risk of dying if they contract COVID-19.

Black North Carolinians make up 22% of the state’s population, but more than half of the state’s prison population is Black. The ACLU of North Carolina found that, in 2016, one in 40 Black men in North Carolina was incarcerated, a rate that far exceeds that of white men.

Cooper has yet to pardon a single person in his first term, unlike every other NC governor in at least the last 40 years where records have been kept on clemency and pardons. 

The life, and death, of Faye Beatrice Brown, 67, was brought up by Lynn Burke, a friend and Raleigh attorney who herself was incarcerated with Brown decades ago. Brown entered the state’s prison for women in 1977 and, in May, became one of the first in North Carolina’s prison system to die from COVID-19.

Brown was 22 years old when she and two others robbed a bank, and one of her accomplices shot and killed a state trooper. But in the years she’d spent in prison, Brown became a mentor to other women in prison, earned degrees and was deemed such a low-risk to others that she had been participating in the work release program for years, catching a city bus to her job as a cosmetology teacher, according to a News & Observer profile.

Brown is the exact type of incarcerated North Carolinian that Cooper could have and should have saved by using his clemency powers, said Kristie Puckett- Williams, Statewide Campaign for Smart Justice Manager at the ACLU of North Carolina.

Wrongly Convicted Men Waiting for Help From Cooper

The group also wants Cooper to move on four pending pardons. Among them is Ronnie Long, who spent 44 years behind bars before being released this August after a federal circuit court found Concord police lied and withheld evidence from his 1976 rape trial that would have exonerated him.  

Jamie Lau, one of Long’s lawyers, said that they had asked Cooper this spring to release Long early, pointing out that several courts had already made rulings that showed Long was innocent. But Cooper’s office never responded, and it wasn’t until a federal circuit court issued its ruling that Long was freed.

“It took me 44 years to prove my innocence when the state of North Carolina had evidence in 1976 they could have proved my innocence,” said Long, who spoke at the vigil. “They withheld this evidence.”

Long went in as a 20-year-old and is now 65. He’s living off of donations while waiting to see if Cooper will issue the innocence pardon, a move that would give Long access to a state fund for those wrongfully convicted. According to state law, the fund grants recipients  $50,000 for each year behind bars, capped at $750,000.

When Cooper was asked about Long at a press conference last month, he said he would review the petition. 

“That petition from Mr. Long, which I think was received a couple of weeks ago, will receive careful consideration by me and my office. It is a significant power of a governor to be able to make decisions about what a judge and jury have done, and I take that power under the constitution very seriously and we’ll review that application along with others,” Cooper said, according to WBTV in Charlotte.

Pleas for Mercy Come as COVID-19 Surges 

North Carolina, and the rest of the nation, is experiencing some of its worst rates of COVID-19 infections since the pandemic began in March. On Saturday, the state had a record 3,885 new infections in a single day. Hospitalizations are also surging.

The prisons has had 17 incarcerated people die from COVID-19, and more than 10% of the state’s prison population have known cases of COVID, data from the state prison system shows. The rates are much higher in some prisons, including at Lumberton Correctional, where 32% of inmates tested were positive for COVID; Albemarle Correction (47%) and Neuse Correctional Institute (62%), according to data provided by vigil participants and data from the NC Department of Public Safety.

Prison populations are among the most vulnerable, given that physical distancing is near impossible in situations where inmates may be sleeping a few feet apart. Inmates depend on guards and prison administrators for protecting them from COVID-19 by providing masks and setting policies, and NAACP, NC Prisoner Legal Services and other groups sued the Cooper administration earlier this year, demanding that more be done to protect inmates. 

But enough isn’t being done, said Ben Finholt, an attorney with Prisoner Legal Services. He noted that he and others advocating for the imprisoned have seen few concrete steps, and that the prison system only began testing for COVID-19 after the lawsuits were filed.  Only 658 inmates have been released early n since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, with the state allowing some of those with 2020 or 2021 release dates.  

“Some of the folks in prison have committed terrible crimes, some of them are just in there because they are poor, because they are Black, because they are brown, because they were on drugs,” Finholt said. “And we know that those people do not deserve to die in prison.”


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