State Politics

North Carolina prisons moving away from solitary confinement

A corrections officer checks on an inmate Wednesday, August 5, 2015, at Central Prison’s treatment mall.
A corrections officer checks on an inmate Wednesday, August 5, 2015, at Central Prison’s treatment mall. tlong@newsobserver.com

North Carolina prison officials, moving away from the broad use of solitary confinement, have cut in half the number of inmates kept in isolation.

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 this month, that number had been reduced to 2,540.

State prison officials say solitary confinement is not working and doesn’t lead to positive behavioral change.

State prison Commissioner David Guice said it is “very much” his goal to end the state’s heavy use of solitary confinement.

He said staff members are assaulted more often in the locked-down units. Other states that are moving away from solitary have seen assaults decline, he said.

Additionally, solitary confinement exacerbates the symptoms of those with mental illness. The shortage of community mental health funds and services has landed many of North Carolina’s mentally ill population in jails and prisons, many of whom have been kept in solitary confinement.

“Let’s not do what we have been doing where there are failures,” Guice said. “Let’s do something different or new. We are changing the culture.”

Criticism of solitary

Inmates are segregated from the regular prison population for various reasons, including to protect the inmate, to remove an aggressive inmate or to discipline an inmate.

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 every six months. That is reviewed and decided by one top administrator.

Inmates in solitary 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.

Advocacy groups and psychiatrists have criticized the prolonged isolation, saying it has harmful effects such as anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, obsessive thoughts, paranoia and psychosis.

Suicides and self-harm occur disproportionately more often in solitary confinement than anywhere else in prisons.

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

The North Carolina prison system was one of five in the country chosen last spring to participate in a two-year study to reduce the use of solitary confinement. The study is sponsored by the Vera Institute of Justice in New York.

“Restrictive housing is changing,” Guice said. “We soon will get away from using that as a tool that is going to keep people locked down for long periods of time and not provide them the assistance and help that they need.”

Broader goals

To Guice, that broader goal means an incentive-based system with more education and work programs for everyone. In the past, these were not available to inmates in solitary confinement.

The state prison system is also restructuring the way it operates. Guice said he is moving his department toward designating certain prison facilities for purposes such as intake or release.

He said that too often, inmates are released to the community directly from their solitary confinement cells.

“We want to begin moving people who are within one year of their release date to facilities equipped to prepare them for re-entry,” Guice said.

For those inmates with mental illness, prison officials are creating therapeutic diversion units, with 128 beds to open in four prison facilities this year.

The purpose of these specialized units is to move mentally ill inmates out of solitary confinement and have them participate in programs outside their cells.

The plan is to open four additional units next year.

“If you look closely at how we built facilities over the years, we built them to control people,” Guice said. “We didn’t build them with classrooms and program space and a place we could talk about re-entry and help them go back into the community.”

‘Millions short’

Accomplishing these goals will take some construction, more staff and more training. That means more money.

“I have nowhere near the funding level that I need,” Guice said. “I mean millions short.”

During the last legislative session, prison officials asked for $24 million over two years to improve the care of prisoners with mental illness. State lawmakers provided $12 million.

Guice did not ask for additional funding during this year’s short session. He hopes to retain the additional mental health funds received last session.

Chris Brook, ACLU of North Carolina legal director, said it is “impossible to overstate the significance of the legislature not providing the (full) funding.” But he said he wants to see prison policies developed more quickly to match the rhetoric of the Department of Public Safety.

State lawmakers say they have spoken to Guice, heard the needs of the prison system and are doing what they can.

Rep. Pat Hurley, a Randolph County Republican and co-chair of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety, said: “We want to do everything we can do to make sure they are getting medications and help in any way they can be. We definitely want the funding for that.”

Rep. Leo Daughtry, a Johnston County Republican and lawyer, serves on Hurley’s committee and echoed her sentiments about providing adequate funding to the prisons last year. This budget cycle he hopes to retain the money allotted to the Department of Public Safety last session.

“We started out in a deep hole when the recession hit. It was a hard time,” Daughtry said. “DPS was neglected for a period of time. We are trying to get that back up and running efficiently.”

Twitter: @tayknopf

Coming Sunday

Devon Davis spent 1,001 days in solitary confinement, then was released with little preparation. How will he cope? Read our two-part series, “Solitary to the Streets,” starting Sunday.

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