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‘Guaranteed to inflict pain.’ Inmates sue NC, hoping to limit solitary confinement

Arguing that the use of solitary confinement is unconstitutional, counterproductive and inhumane, four inmates have filed a class action lawsuit that they hope will all but eliminate the use of the punishment in North Carolina.

Inmates in solitary spend 22 or more hours alone each day in prison cells smaller than a typical parking space. They’re generally prohibited from visiting with friends, relatives or other prisoners. Some have been required to stay in solitary for more than a decade.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday by lawyers from the ACLU of North Carolina and North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, contends that the state prison system is putting thousands of inmates at risk of “serious psychological and physiological harm” by placing them in isolation.

The practice makes healthy people sick and unhealthy people worse, the lawsuit says. Researchers have found that solitary confinement can trigger a host of psychological problems, from depression and rage to hallucinations, self-mutilation and suicidal behavior.

“Because the practice is virtually guaranteed to inflict serious pain and create or exacerbate mental illness, people do not emerge from solitary rehabilitated and ready to reenter society,” the lawsuit states. “Instead they come out sick, angry, socially withdrawn, and even more likely to wind up back in prison.”

A state prison spokesman declined to discuss the lawsuit, saying the office doesn’t comment on pending litigation. But prison officials have previously said that they’re working to reduce the number of inmates in what they call “restrictive housing.” Still, they say, it’s sometimes a necessary tool to protect staff and inmates from violent or abusive offenders.

Solitary cell - 1 (1)
In North Carolina prisons, inmates in solitary confinement typically spend 22 to 23 hours a day inside cells that are smaller than a parking space. This cell, at Central Prison in Raleigh, is smaller than 100 square feet. JUSTINE MILLER

Inmates who are put in solitary have an increased risk of dying the first year after they are released from prison, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

State prison officials say that the period studied by the UNC researchers — 2000 to 2015 — pre-dated some of their initiatives to reduce the use of restrictive housing.

About 3,000 N.C. inmates were living in solitary as of July, according to the lawsuit. Hundreds of them have been in solitary for months or years, the suit states.

As of Oct. 11, two North Carolina inmates have been in restrictive housing for more than 10 years, and 69 have been in segregation for more than a year, a spokesperson for the state Department of Public Safety told the Observer.

Rocky Dewalt, one of the three inmates filing the lawsuit, is serving time as an habitual felon. He suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and has spent more than 12 of his 13 incarcerated years in solitary confinement, according to the lawsuit.

Robert Parham, another plaintiff in the suit, began serving a life sentence for murder in 2008, and has spent about 10 years since then in solitary, according to the suit. Parham suffers from depressive disorder and other psychological ailments, the lawsuit states.

The inmates are hoping to make their case a class action suit. If they succeed in their legal fight, state prison leaders would be forced to rewrite their policies to ensure that solitary is used “only as a last resort, and only for the shortest duration possible,” the lawsuit states.

Changing views about solitary

In 2016, the Charlotte Observer wrote about two inmates who’d been in solitary for more than a decade — Jason Swain and Shawn Minnich. They were among seven inmates who’d been in solitary for more than a decade, an Observer investigation found.

Swain became so disturbed in solitary that he began swallowing razor blades, ripping open his surgical incisions and plunging sharp objects into his open wounds.

Solitary is generally supposed to serve two purposes: punishing bad behavior and protecting inmates and staff. But in North Carolina, inmates can be sent to solitary for minor disciplinary violations, such as lewd behavior or cursing at prison officers.

Solitary confinement was once used more sparingly in North Carolina. For even the most serious disciplinary infractions, state prisoners faced a maximum of 30 days in solitary, the lawsuit says.

Other states — including New Jersey, Idaho, California and Ohio — have moved aggressively to curb their use of solitary.

“For all the states who’ve made these reforms, there has not been an increase in the number of assaults,” said Irena Como, the ACLU of North Carolina’s acting legal director and one of the lawyers who filed the lawsuit. “To the contrary, what we see is prisons actually become safer.”

Solitary - Outdoor cages
A view from inside one of the steel recreation cages used by inmates in solitary confinement at Central Prison in Raleigh. Observer file photo

North Carolina has taken some steps to reduce the number of people in solitary. It has opened units at several prisons — called “therapeutic diversion units” (TDUs) — that are designed to provide mental health therapy for people who would otherwise be in solitary.

But those units “only serve a small fraction” of the roughly 35,000 inmates in North Carolina prisons, the lawsuit says. About 200 inmates are currently housed in TDUs, a prison spokesman said.

Ames Alexander, an investigative reporter for the Observer, has examined corruption in state prisons, the mistreatment of injured poultry workers and many other subjects. His stories have won dozens of state and national awards. He was a key member of two reporting teams that were named Pulitzer finalists.