UNC study: Solitary confinement too common, ineffective

According to a new report from the UNC School of Law, long-term solitary confinement is common in North Carolina prisons but costly and ineffective at decreasing violence.

In North Carolina, 9 percent of inmates are held in solitary confinement; the figure is 6 percent in Texas and the federal prison system. New York held 8 percent of its inmates in solitary before settling a lawsuit regarding the overuse of solitary confinement.

“All North Carolinians should care about the conditions these prisoners face,” according to the report, “Solitary Confinement as Torture,” which was produced by law students and professors. “In 2012, approximately 23,500 prisoners were released by the North Carolina Department of Corrections into our hometowns and communities. Those who have been held in a solitary confinement unit were released directly to the street – an enormous and jarring transition that is unsafe and inhumane.”

In solitary confinement, an inmate spends 22 to 24 hours a day in his cell, with strict limitations on visitors and recreational time. Inmates generally leave their cells, shackled and accompanied by guards, for one hour at a time several days a week for recreation or showers.

Solitary confinement is used primarily for discipline, isolating inmates who are dangerous or disruptive. On a given day, more than 3,000 inmates of the state’s 37,500 inmates are in solitary confinement.

About 20 percent of North Carolina inmates in solitary confinement have diagnoses of serious mental illness.

According to Craig Haney, a psychologist who is an expert on solitary confinement, all published studies show that more than 10 days in involuntary isolation result in negative psychological effects: Humans are social creatures who deteriorate when kept in isolation. The effects of isolation can range from irritability, anger and insomnia to deep depression, psychosis and hallucinations.

A recent report from Dr. Jeffrey Metzner, a University of Colorado psychiatrist, noted progress in mental health treatment at Central Prison in Raleigh, which opened a new hospital last year designed to meet the needs of mentally ill inmates.

Inmates housed in the hospital receive four hours a day of structured therapeutic activity outside their cells. Staff have been trained not to automatically resort to physical control when facing a challenging situation, but to communicate verbally to calm and control the situation.

But Metzner found that much remains to be done at the hospital: There are nursing shortages, high turnover among staff and not enough out-of-cell time.

And he found little change in Unit 1, Central Prison’s 192-bed unit where inmates with disciplinary problems are held in long-term solitary confinement with three hours a week outside the cell for recreation in cages and three trips to a shower.

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