State secrets: Here’s what N.C. won’t tell you about inmates in solitary confinement

In North Carolina prisons, inmates in solitary confinement typically spend 22 to 23 hours a day inside cells that are smaller than a parking space. This cell, at Central Prison in Raleigh, is smaller than 100 square feet.
In North Carolina prisons, inmates in solitary confinement typically spend 22 to 23 hours a day inside cells that are smaller than a parking space. This cell, at Central Prison in Raleigh, is smaller than 100 square feet.

In North Carolina’s prisons, about half a dozen inmates have been in solitary confinement for more than a decade.

But the state doesn’t want you to know who they are.

State officials say they’ve been working to reduce their use of the punishment as awareness grows about the dangerous psychological effects of isolating prisoners.

Roughly 2,500 North Carolina inmates are in solitary at any given time. As of early March, the most recent date for which state prison officials provided information, seven inmates had been in solitary for more than 10 years – a practice that human rights experts say amounts to torture.

A prison spokesman rejected the Observer’s request for the names of those inmates, citing a court ruling about the confidentiality of prisoner records.

By any standard, this is cruel and unusual punishment equivalent to torture. ... This is not the example we should set for the rest of the world.

Daniel Shain, a Rutgers University professor who has become a friend to Shawn Minnich, a North Carolina inmate who has been in solitary confinement for 13 years.

The Observer identified two of those prisoners through other means. One of them – an inmate named Jason Swain who the Observer profiled earlier this year – suffers from bipolar depression and had been in solitary confinement for more than 13 years. Swain, now at Central Prison in Raleigh, has repeatedly swallowed razors, ripped open his surgical incisions and plunged sharp objects into his open wounds.

Another inmate, Shawn Minnich, recently wrote to an Observer reporter after reading Swain’s story to say that he, too, has been in solitary for 13 straight years.

State prison officials said Minnich has been kept in long-term segregation because he is considered “an extreme escape risk” and has a history of assaulting staff members.

But Minnich, 48, says he has been kept in solitary even after going more than two years without disciplinary infractions.

He described grueling conditions at Central Prison, such as being confined for 14 hours in a tiny prison cell that had been flooded with foul-smelling toilet water. After seeing the flooding in Minnich’s cell, prison officers cut off the water to it. But they did not move him for hours, he said, so he was forced to defecate in a plastic bag.

Solitary confinement is considered to be the most extreme form of punishment in the United States, short of the death penalty. For that reason, it’s important for the public to know how it’s administered, watchdogs say.

It was only after the Observer’s first story about Swain that he was released from solitary and allowed to visit with his mother for the first time since 1999.

Inmates in solitary usually spend 22 to 24 hours a day in concrete cells smaller than parking spaces, with strict limitations on visitors. When inmates do leave their cells for showers, recreation or therapy, they are typically handcuffed and accompanied by guards. They rarely get to talk face-to-face with other inmates. Their recreational time is often spent in empty steel cages.

Researchers have found that prolonged solitary confinement can cause and worsen psychiatric problems. That can create a vicious cycle: Mental disorders make inmates more prone to commit offenses, which in turn makes them more likely to be thrown into solitary.

In 2015, the United Nations approved the so-called “Mandela Rules,” which seek to prohibit the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days, and to ban it for inmates whose mental or physical disabilities could be worsened by segregation.

State prison officials would not allow reporters to interview Minnich or any other inmates in solitary. But in letters summarizing his struggles, Minnich said he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder – a condition that he attributes to living in solitary. “It’s like living on a battlefield for years,” he said.

“The amount of stress and b.s. a prisoner on segregation goes through in just one day is equal to all a regular person in the free world goes through in a whole month … sometimes in a whole year,” wrote Minnich, who is serving time for armed robbery, having sex with a minor and other offenses.

A friend of Minnich’s – Daniel Shain, a professor who heads the biology department at Rutgers University – has vouched for much of the inmate’s account.

Shain and others don’t dispute that Minnich deserved to go to prison. But no one, they say, should be kept in solitary so long.

“By any standard, this is cruel and unusual punishment equivalent to torture,” Shain wrote in a May letter to state prison officials, lawyers and lawmakers. “... This is not the example we should set for the rest of the world.”

Shawn’s father, Ed Minnich, a former state official who managed counseling services for state and local governments, acknowledges that his son made serious mistakes. And he says he’s had many disagreements with him. But no one deserves the treatment he’s gotten in prison, his father says.

“The one thing that he and I absolutely agree on is that he has gotten screwed over,” Ed Minnich said.

‘What are they hiding?’

State prison officials refused to confirm how long Minnich has been held in solitary confinement.

Elizabeth Forbes, who heads the criminal justice reform group NC CURE, said she sees no justification for withholding the names of inmates in long-term solitary.

“What on earth are they hiding?” she asked.

Researchers have found that solitary can trigger many psychological problems, from depression and rage to hallucinations, self-mutilation and suicidal behavior – problems that can continue to haunt people even after they’re released from prison.

When information about inmates in solitary is kept from the public, it’s harder for advocates to help inmates, Forbes said.

“What right do they have to tie our hands and keep us from helping people who’ve been kept in isolation so long?” she asked. “To me, there’s something very wrong with that.”

What right do they have to tie our hands and keep us from helping people who’ve been kept in isolation so long?

Elizabeth Forbes, director of the criminal justice reform group NC CURE, speaking about the state’s refusal to release the names of inmates who’ve been kept in solitary confinement for years.

North Carolina’s prisons have long relied on solitary confinement to discipline inmates, and to remove dangerous and disruptive prisoners from the general population. As of March 12, 167 N.C. inmates had been in solitary for more than a year.

As global outcry against solitary confinement grows, many states – including North Carolina – have worked to reduce their use of segregation.

The percentage of adult inmates in restrictive housing has declined from 12.5 percent in 2014 to about 6 percent today, according to the N.C. Department of Public Safety.

Some information about inmates in solitary is publicly available. On a web site that provides public information about offenders, the state Department of Public Safety lists the “control status” of inmates. That web site shows who is being held in isolation, but not for how long.

The department generally will not reveal how long an inmate has been in solitary.

“I don’t know why that information would be private,” said Jean Casella, co-director of Solitary Watch, a watchdog group that disseminates information about solitary confinement.

While many states keep such information confidential, a growing number are starting to provide it, Casella says. In Colorado, for instance, the length of time an inmate has been in restrictive housing is made available to the public.

“I think we need to hear from people who have endured this punishment,” Casella says. “And that (secrecy) really stands in the way of that happening.”

A history of trouble

In his younger days, Minnich didn’t appear to be on a path to prison.

He excelled in wrestling and ROTC at his high school in Fayetteville, his father said. Shawn Minnich later attended classes at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

He got married twice and became the father of two daughters.

But in 1999, Minnich got into grave trouble.

A 12-year-old girl engaged in oral sex with him, he said. The girl’s parents found out about it and reported it to police. Soon afterward, a Sampson County sheriff’s deputy tried to apprehend him. Minnich fought with the officer, got hold of his gun, locked him in his patrol car and fled.

He later surrendered and was sentenced to 31 years in prison.

During his time in prison, Minnich has been cited for 46 infractions – for offenses ranging from weapon and contraband possession to repeated escape attempts and assaults on staff. Many of those infractions have earned him more time in solitary.

A gun made from soap

His history of escape attempts reads like crime fiction. Among them:

In April 2000, Minnich slipped through the window of a moving sheriff’s van that was taking him to Central Prison. He was later caught hiding in a pond, suffering from hypothermia.

In 2004, he unsuccessfully tried to wrest a handgun from an officer watching over him in a hospital room. In 2007, he fashioned a mock gun from bars of soap and then pointed it at correctional officers, who were able to disarm him. In 2010, he offered three prison officers $10,000 apiece to let him escape – a deal that the officers declined and reported.

Minnich has in recent years gotten into less serious trouble. From March 2011 to April 2013, for instance, he had no infractions, prison records show. And from late May 2013 to July 2014, he also avoided disciplinary actions.

State prison officials didn’t directly address why Minnich was kept in solitary during those periods. But in an email to the Observer, prison spokesman Keith Acree said officials regularly review inmates in segregation to determine whether they are eligible for fewer restrictions.

“Each case is considered on merits of positive behavior and measured risk to the safety of other inmates, staff and general public,” Acree wrote.

But many inmates with more serious offenses in prison have done less time in solitary, Minnich says.

He contends that prison staff have accused him of many offenses that he never committed, and that he has repeatedly been cited for infractions just days before he was scheduled to be released from solitary.

In 2010, he filed a federal lawsuit, alleging that on several occasions, he was kept in a solitary cell for 10 days at a time without a mattress, blanket or sheets. He also contended that a female sergeant threatened to make prison life hard for him if he didn’t respond to her sexual advances.

“But the lawsuit did nothing, so out of desperation (I) began fighting back, physically, by assaulting staff and threatening administrators personally and with letters,” Minnich wrote in a summary of his time in solitary. “These men whom (I) threatened are now the very top administrators within the N.C. Prison system.”

‘Try something different’

About five years ago, Minnich was worried that fungal spores inside his prison cell were making him sick. So he contacted Shain, the Rutgers professor.

As he read Minnich’s letter, Shain was struck by his intelligence, grammar and writing style. They continued to correspond.

Shain said he has become convinced that prison officials are mistreating Minnich.

“My sense is that Shawn has been targeted because he’s a smart guy and they can’t break him,” Shain said.

In his May letter to prison officials, Shain said Minnich was being kept in solitary even after going infraction-free for years. Minnich, he said, has been “subjected to inhumane actions including, for example, being stripped and chained to a concrete floor for days during winter without a bed to sleep on.”

Prison officials did not respond to Minnich’s recent allegations about inhumane treatment. But in court papers, they disputed the claims in his lawsuit.

Ed Minnich says all the time in solitary has left his son “psychologically starved.” What prison officials are doing to his son clearly isn’t working, he said.

“You hollow people out when you put them in solitary,” he said. “For Pete’s sake, try something different.”

Ames Alexander: 704-358-5060, @amesalex