Devon Davis lingered at the front door. Inside, members of his family waited for their first look at him in almost three years.
Davis was nervous, fidgety. He wasn’t accustomed to being around his family. In fact, he wasn’t accustomed to being around anyone.
For 1,001 days, Davis had been held in the North Carolina prison system in solitary confinement. Most days, he saw no one other than an officer sliding a meal tray through a slot. He talked to no one.
That’s nearly three years served, all but about 30 days done in solitary. His original crime: trying to steal a car. Then, while on probation, he was arrested on a charge of attempted burglary.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
On Sept. 29 of last year, he was given $45 and a month’s supply of his many mental health medications. Two officers then delivered him to his aunt’s home in Knightdale. They walked him to the door and drove away.
Davis was one of more than 2,000 North Carolina inmates released last year after being imprisoned with a mental illness. He was one of hundreds released directly from solitary confinement within a state prison.
They emerge from a cell roughly the size of a parking space into a world they sometimes know little about. Davis told prison staff a month before his release that he wasn’t ready to go back to society.
“My coping skills weren’t ready,” said Davis, 24. “I felt it. Not being around anybody.”
Heavy use of solitary
On any given day, North Carolina houses about 38,000 prisoners, roughly 7 percent of them segregated from their fellow inmates, even though prison officials have sharply reduced the use of solitary this year. In solitary confinement, those 2,500 inmates see another human only when a correctional officer does rounds or delivers meals.
They spend 23 to 24 hours a day in their cells with limited access to fresh air and sunlight. On average, they shower three times a week for 10 minutes. They are allowed recreation in an outdoor cell for 60 minutes five times a week unless there’s a security concern.
Inmates are segregated from the regular population for various reasons, including protection for the inmate, to remove an aggressive inmate or as a disciplinary action.
For offenses from fighting to spitting on someone, an inmate can spend 60 days in solitary. If put on a more permanent segregated status, an inmate is up for a housing review – performed by a top administrator – every six months.
Prolonged isolation is as clinically distressing as physical torture, according to one of the nation’s leading experts on the psychological effects of solitary confinement.
“Psychological effects can include anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, obsessive thoughts, paranoia and psychosis,” Dr. Jeffrey Metzner, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, wrote in 2010 in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.
He said that it’s worse for those with serious mental illnesses, and psychiatrists are often unable to fully reverse the harm done by isolation.
“The stress, lack of meaningful social contact and unstructured days can exacerbate symptoms of illness or provoke recurrence,” Metzner wrote.
Davis soon felt the effects in solitary, where he battled the mental illnesses that he refers to as demons. But his problems didn’t start in prison.
At 6, a mental hospital
When he was born in December 1991, Devon Davis’ tiny body was already afflicted by cocaine, according to medical records.
His mother, Shirley Lynch, gave birth to Davis when she was 25. She was convicted of armed robbery and was in and out of prison.
By Davis’ first birthday, his mother was locked up; his father didn’t take custody of Devon and his older brother, Dexter. The court eventually terminated the custody rights of both parents.
Davis went to live with his maternal grandmother. Things didn’t go well there.
Being taken from his grandmother’s home was a breaking point for Davis that sent him to a psychiatric hospital. He was 6.
Five years went by before Davis and his brother were removed from the home due to “neglect … drug usage, and criminal activities,” according to court records. Being taken from his grandmother’s home was a breaking point for Davis that sent him to a psychiatric hospital. He was 6.
At Holly Hill, he heard voices of a “little man” and had visual hallucinations, records show. Because of increasingly irritable and out-of-control behavior, he was shuffled between multiple foster and group homes.
Davis had 11 psychological evaluations during his childhood. Doctors made several diagnoses, including ADHD, possible bipolar disorder and a psychotic disorder. He was taking at least four medications.
School was a challenge, too. He scored 67 on an IQ test in his teens, putting him in the “mentally deficient” range. In prison, an IQ test placed him at 74.
Davis described his difficulty in school: “Certain things about my body just shut down. I don’t want to do this anymore. Sometimes I just skipped school. It’s always been like that, since preschool.”
Asked to compare “love” and “hate” during an eighth-grade evaluation, he said they were both feelings, according to the records. But asked to compare a cow and a bear, he responded that they both have teeth. At that time, his vocabulary skills were at an 8-year-old level. He was 15.
He dropped out of 10th grade at age 18.
‘Walls close in’
Without something to occupy his time, Davis started getting in trouble. While on probation for larceny of a motor vehicle, he was charged with burglary.
He says that he was living at the house he was accused of trying to enter with his then-girlfriend and their baby. The couple were in the middle of an argument at the time, he says, and she called the cops. Davis went to prison.
He arrived at Polk Correctional Institution in Butner a week before his 21st birthday. He stayed in the regular population with other inmates for about 30 days, until his first infraction for fighting.
You stay (in solitary) for so long, you start to get comfortable. As you start to get comfortable, it does something to you physically. It does something to you mentally. … Walls close in on you.
He entered a program called intensive control, or ICON. It was his first taste of solitary confinement, and until the day he was released, he was housed alone, ate alone and did everything alone.
“I didn’t never make it off,” Davis said. “It just did something to me.”
“You stay back there for so long, you start to get comfortable. As you start to get comfortable, it does something to you physically. It does something to you mentally. Now you don’t know if you’re coming or going. Walls close in on you. You so anxious to get out your room, but they (the guards) don’t want you to come out. They take your (recreation time), saying that you’re asleep.”
Mostly, Davis passed the time writing poetry, music, letters and sketching.
“If I wasn’t doing any of that, I was acting out,” he said. “Flooding my cell. Set a fire.”
He said he rebelled in these ways because he wanted to make a phone call to a friend or family member.
“Couldn’t get my visits. Can’t get no one to come see me,” Davis said. “I was miserable.”
Prison records show Davis was a difficult inmate. He frequently acted out, yelling and cursing at staff. He showed signs of depression and paranoia. Davis smeared feces in his cell, telling staff that voices told him to do it.
Correctional officers forcefully controlled him and used pepper spray. The many medical checkups that followed uses of force showed small injuries.
He says “bizarre things including people putting spells on him, putting things in his drinks and him seeing dead people,” a prison therapist wrote in his records.
Davis attempted to hurt himself on multiple occasions in prison and was placed on suicide watch.
An infraction such as flooding a cell with toilet water resulted in a write-up, more time in solitary and a $10 fine. Davis said he was often punished by being fed what’s called Nutraloaf instead of regular meals. Davis described it as a black loaf of bread containing necessary nutrients in foods such as grits, carrots, oatmeal, tomatoes, bananas and beans. He said he would only eat it when he was really hungry.
Time was added to his sentence after he assaulted two guards. He had thrown toilet water on one. The second time, Davis said he threw punches at a guard through the trap in his door after he was subjected to pepper spray.
“I feared for my life, what was I supposed to do? You spray me,” he said. “I couldn’t see!”
After that incident, prison officials labeled him as violent, records show; because of that, he would likely remain in isolation the remainder of his sentence. And he did.
Derision from others
Davis was taking multiple medications in prison. He said his therapist would come to his cell once a month and talk with him.
Other inmates in his cell block heard the conversations and made fun of him. At a certain point, he said he didn’t want to talk to his therapist because she wouldn’t discuss his issues privately.
Records show the therapist did talk with Davis at his cell most of the time and that he was taken to a conference room to talk on occasion.
Asked what the others would say, he replied, “Oh ... ‘He told them people that he was depressed ... how the room getting to him. Get that retarded guy out of here. He don’t know if he’s coming or going. Ha ha ha ...’ Things of that nature.
“When they talked down to me, it caused me to feel low,” Davis said. “And when it caused me to feel low, it caused me to be depressed.
“It’s always been that way. People have been talking down to me for years.”
A difficult homecoming
As his release date neared, Davis said he wasn’t ready. He had spent so much time alone, he didn’t know how to interact with other people.
“Now I don’t want to be around nobody,” he said shortly after his release.
He was also going back to a family he hasn’t known since he was a child. “That’s one of my biggest fears, getting to know my family,” he said.
Davis was dressed in white prison clothes when he entered his aunt’s home on Sept. 29.
His aunt, Jeanette Lynch, suffered from cancer in both lungs.
His first words to her: “You look rough.” She punched him in the chest.
Cousins waited to see him. His mother hugged him tightly and had new clothes and a cellphone waiting for him. Davis smiled at his newest cousin, “Little Jay,” as the toddler waddled over to greet him.
Davis looked skeptically at the phone, saying someone might try to track him. Offered food, he didn’t want to eat. He said he feared his mother would poison him.
“I think he’s feeling smothered,” his mother said. “He’s been in that lockup ever since he got there.”
After 20 minutes, Davis retreated from the group. He went upstairs.
On his own
The next day, Davis met with his parole officer in downtown Raleigh. His mother, Shirley, drove him, but as they were leaving the appointment, Davis jumped out of the car, repeating his fears of poison.
His older brother picked him up in Raleigh and drove him to his next appointment.
At each appointment, Davis picked up mounds of paperwork, forms that had to be filled out for vocational rehabilitation, disability benefits, transportation, Social Security and more.
“It’s going to be a job,” Shirley Lynch said.
Davis’ grandmother died in 2010; he was by the side of her hospital bed. After his release from prison, he went to her grave, he said, to talk to her.
But other family relationships proved difficult to renew. After a couple of weeks, Davis said he had “cut off” his mother and brother.
Again, he would be alone. He was going solo.
Tuesday: Homeless and jobless
Mental illness in prison
Last year, North Carolina released 21,451 inmates. Of those, 941 were, like Davis, released directly from solitary confinement. Of those, 135 were being treated for mental health issues.
Because of a shortage of community mental health resources, the state’s prisons have become a major provider of mental health care.
Of those released from prison last year, 2,138 had a mental illness.
Today: In solitary, with mental illness
Tuesday: Searching for stability
About the reporting
The News & Observer made contact with Devon Davis’ family before he left prison and followed him as he arrived in Wake County from Maury Correctional Institution in Hookerton. The following months were filled with family drama, personal challenges and the expected problems of a young man not prepared to get by on his own.
All records cited in the story came from court files or from prison records obtained by The N&O with Davis’ consent.
Complaints about solitary
North Carolina has drawn criticism for its broad use of solitary confinement.
A group of prisoner and civil rights advocates in August asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate solitary confinement practices in North Carolina, saying the state has deployed a “dangerous and unconstitutional use of isolation,” particularly for people with mental illnesses.
More than 1 in 5 prisoners in isolation should be receiving treatment for mental health issues, the advocates say in a 15-page letter to the DOJ.
Chris Brook, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina, said the state has had ample time to fix the concerns, but it has not. The ACLU and other advocates started meeting monthly with prison officials to discuss solutions.
“When you see these problems build up over a decade and proposed solutions don’t come to fruition or they don’t meet the scope of the problem, we throw up our hands and feel like we need to fully document how big of a problem we are facing,” Brook said.
North Carolina prison officials have acknowledged problems with their system’s use of segregation and pledged some changes.
Already, the North Carolina prison system is one of five nationwide participating in a program intended to reduce the use of solitary confinement. The initiative is led by Vera Institute of Justice in New York and aims to find alternatives to solitary confinement.