Two years ago today, Michael Anthony Kerr was found dead in the back of a prison van. A 53-year-old former Army sergeant with a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, Kerr had been locked in solitary confinement for 35 days before his death.
Kerr was placed in solitary as punishment for a series of minor disciplinary infractions that he had incurred since he went off his psychotropic medication. Solitary confinement only exacerbated his mental illness: Not long before his death, Kerr began pouring water on the floor of his cell, encouraging anyone who could hear him to “come on in, the water is fine.” Instead of responding with necessary treatment, officials at Alexander Correctional Institution turned off the water in his cell and placed him in handcuffs. By the time prison officials attempted to provide appropriate care, it was too late. Kerr died of dehydration en route to Central Prison in Raleigh.
In response, a coalition of human rights groups – including the American Civil Liberties Union, the UNC School of Law Human Rights Policy Lab, the UNC Center for Civil Rights and NC Stop Torture Now – outlined the horrific conditions suffered by inmates in solitary in North Carolina, particularly those with mental health issues, in a letter urging an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. The letter highlighted that on a given day, hundreds of prisoners with mental illness in North Carolina were locked away 23 to 24 hours without sunlight, fresh air or human contact. Often, like Kerr, these inmates were punished for manifestations of their mental illnesses.
Despite public outcry, North Carolina has not done enough to reform the broken system that allowed Kerr to die in state custody.
Much of the fault here lies with the North Carolina General Assembly. Gov. Pat McCrory requested $25 million in last year’s budget to expand treatment for prisoners suffering from mental illness and to move away from a system overly reliant upon solitary confinement. The legislature approved less than half of this request.
As a result, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety does not have the resources it needs for the challenges it faces. Dr. Jeffrey Metzner, a state-hired consultant, estimated in 2012 and again in 2014 that on a given day approximately 700 inmates with mental illness were held in solitary in North Carolina prisons. Out of this larger population, 68 inmates have a release date less than a year away.
DPS’s promising proposal to move inmates with mental illness out of solitary and into treatment revolves around opening Therapeutic Diversionary Units at four prison facilities in 2016 as well as further units in the future. Yet DPS has the capacity to make just only over 100 TDU beds available this year. In short, DPS barely has the resources to provide critical treatment to prisoners in solitary with mental illness who are about to rejoin society, let alone the entire population desperately in need of services. More funding and staffing are plainly necessary.
But beyond funding, DPS must also act more swiftly and ambitiously to reform its policies and practices. To their credit, DPR officials have invited members of our coalition to participate in a working group focused on ensuring prisoners with mental illness receive the care they need. And David Guice, DPS Division of Adult Correct and Juvenile Justice commissioner, has been a champion for reform, for example, recently echoing President Obama’s call to stop sending minors to solitary confinement.
But the rhetoric has yet to become policy: 21 percent to 38 percent of the 16- to 17-year old prisoners in our state are held in solitary at a given time, according to Disability Rights North Carolina. Policies requiring timely and more robust mental health treatment for inmates in crisis like Michael Kerr have similarly languished.
Time is not on our side. The General Assembly must allocate additional funding for mental health in prisons in its upcoming short session. And state officials must enact policies and practices that bring North Carolina in line with the emerging consensus that solitary confinement is a cruel, tortuous and ineffective means of rehabilitating prisoners. Every day that passes without necessary reforms risks another tragedy.
Chris Brook is legal director of ACLU of North Carolina.