RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Thousands of prisoners are being released early in the next six months in North Carolina after a lawsuit against the state over unsafe and crowded conditions in facilities.
Roughly 20,000 men and women are released from North Carolina prisons every year, according to the Department of Public Safety.
This lawsuit settlement is now accelerating the process for thousands more to be released early.
“From the onset of the pandemic, the safety of our communities, our staff, and offenders has been job one,” said Todd Ishee, commissioner of prisons.
It stems from a COVID-19 lawsuit settlement involving the state and civil rights organizations.
A total of 3,500 offenders will be released early within the next six months.
“We thought the settlement was a good solution that allowed for advocacy voices to be heard and it aligned with the safety initiatives we already had in place in the prison system,” said Ishee. “We know through having less-populated facilities, our staff is going to be safer, our offenders are going to be safer.”
To be eligible for release, they will look at various factors, such as offenders with non-violent crimes — like drugs or theft — and already having a scheduled 2021 release date.
They will then need to meet certain requirements, such as good behavior, and be thoroughly assessed.
When they are released, they will all still be under a form of supervision.
“The safety of our communities is the priority concern with every release or transition decision we make,” said Ishee.
DPS officials said roughly 13,000 offenders and staff have been infected with COVID-19 in the past year.
“We have tragically lost staff and offender lives to this invisible killer,” said Ishee.
Prisons weren’t built with social distancing in mind, so the state said they’ve been working to reduce population since before the lawsuit.
The settlement also calls for COVID-19 safety with testing, vaccines and PPE.
So far, about 44 percent of prison staff has received a vaccine, according to DPS.
They are not as far along with vaccinating inmates, but officials said 65 percent of them said they would be willing to get one.
“We’re committed to keep doing these things because we’re not out of the weeds yet,” said Ishee.
This settlement ends after a year or could be sooner if the COVID-19 state of emergency is lifted.