In the movies, prisoners are thrown into “the box” or “solitary” because they’re really bad guys.
But in too many cases, “isolation,” as it’s now called, is used to separate mentally ill prisoners from others. That only makes their illnesses worse, and it increases the possibility of neglect, as was the case with Michael Kerr, a mentally ill inmate who died of dehydration last year after spending more than a month in isolation. It’s little comfort, but his estate will get $2.5 million from the state.
And yet despite the known hazards of excessive use of isolation, the state continues to do it and continues to starve mental health services for prisoners. Gov. Pat McCrory wanted $24 million for those services in his proposed budget; the House cut the number in half, and the Senate cut it again.
That could get tragically expensive. For as long as mental health services are falling short, there will be other deaths like that of Kerr, and more payouts from the state that neglected the prisoners.
Advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and North Carolina Prison Legal Services want the federal Justice Department to investigate the use of isolation in North Carolina. It should. It must. How lawmakers could cut proposed funding so drastically in the wake of Kerr’s death is mind-boggling.