Crime

NC prisons halt solitary confinement for inmates 17 and younger

North Carolina prison officials announced Wednesday plans to stop isolating inmates who are 17 and younger in solitary confinement.

W. David Guice, the state’s commissioner of adult correction and juvenile justice, said the state will establish a new Youthful Offender Program that will focus on the education, behavioral health and treatment needs of the approximately 70 inmates younger than 18 housed in the state prison system. The program will be in place – and solitary confinement will be phased out – by Sept. 1, Guice said.

“The mental health, medical, educational, social, spiritual and emotional needs of these youth are numerous and complex,” he said in a statement. “It is important that while these youth are in our care, their unique needs are accurately identified and addressed in the most effective way possible.”

The news comes as the state prisons and others across the country are questioning the practice of segregating inmates of all ages alone in cells for 23 to 24 hours a day with limited access to fresh air and sunlight.

In January, President Barack Obama banned the practice of holding youthful offenders in solitary confinement in federal prisons, saying holding prisoners in cells with no human contact for extended periods was counterproductive in many cases and could lead to “devastating” and “lasting, psychological consequences.”

The ACLU and other prison advocates asked the U.S. Department of Justice last year to investigate North Carolina’s use of solitary confinement, particularly the practice of keeping mentally ill inmates in isolation.

In March 2015, the Vera Institute of Justice in New York selected the North Carolina prison system as one of five in the country for a two-year study on how to reduce the use of solitary confinement.

Studies have shown that extended periods of solitary confinement can lead to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior. Some studies indicate that it can worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones.

As of Wednesday, there were no inmates younger than 16 incarcerated in the state prison system, according to Keith Acree, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety.

The 70 male inmates in the state prison system who were 17 and younger were being housed in Foothills Correctional Institution in Morganton, where the facilities are structured so that the teens are separated from the adult population.

The two female inmates who are 17 or younger are being housed at the N.C. Correctional Institute for Women in Raleigh.

Juvenile justice advocates have tried for years to get North Carolina to raise the age at which teens can be prosecuted as adults, arguing that the teenage brain is not fully developed. But North Carolina remains the outlier that does not handle 16- and 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system where there is more leeway to try to help young offenders turn their lives around.

“Unless and until current law changes, these adult-adjudicated youth are required to be housed within a prison setting,” Guice said in a letter to his colleagues on Wednesday. “At the same time, however, it is of paramount importance that, while these youth are in our care, their unique needs are accurately identified and addressed in the most effective way possible.

Guice continued: “We are committed in assisting the youthful offender in effecting the kind of personal change that will afford him a more safe and positive period of incarceration; a successful re-entry into the community; and a crime-free and productive life upon release from prison.”

Guice has said solitary confinement is not working and doesn’t lead to positive behavioral change, and state prison officials have been moving away from the broad use of solitary confinement of adult inmates, too. Last spring, roughly 5,330 of the state’s 38,000 prisoners – 1 in 7 – were segregated from other inmates on any given day. By late May, that number had been reduced to 2,540.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1

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