Facing questions, NC moves inmate from solitary. He’d been there 13 years.

A wide-angle view of a cell inside the new Therapeutic Diversion Unit at Central Prison in Raleigh. Inmate Shawn Minnich was recently moved to the unit after years in more restrictive solitary confinement.
A wide-angle view of a cell inside the new Therapeutic Diversion Unit at Central Prison in Raleigh. Inmate Shawn Minnich was recently moved to the unit after years in more restrictive solitary confinement. jmiller@mcclatchy.com

North Carolina prison leaders have moved an inmate into a less restrictive housing unit following a recent Charlotte Observer story detailing his 13-year struggle in solitary confinement.

Earlier this month, the Observer reported that inmate Shawn Minnich is one of about half a dozen N.C. inmates who have been in solitary for more than a decade. Keeping inmates in solitary so long amounts to torture, human rights experts say.

Minnich, now at Central Prison in Raleigh, has been moved to a mental health unit where inmates can spend more time out of their cells. He has been told that if he completes the six-to-nine-month program, he can be promoted to the regular prison population.

In recent letters to the Observer and others, Minnich continued to voice complaints. But for the first time in years, he said, he has been able to look out a window and see the moon. The window in his cell at Unit One – a segregation unit where Minnich was previously confined – had been painted over, Minnich wrote.

“Just being able to actually see the trees, the Raleigh skyline at night and the moon, stars and sky is really amazing,” Minnich wrote to a friend. “Truly.”

It was the second time since September that state prison officials moved an inmate from long-term solitary confinement to less restrictive housing following questions from the Observer.

Jason Swain, the first inmate, suffers from bipolar depression and had also been in solitary confinement for more than 13 years. Swain, who is also serving time at Central Prison, has repeatedly swallowed razors, ripped open his surgical incisions and plunged sharp objects into his open wounds. After the Observer’s first story about Swain, he was released from solitary and allowed to visit with his mother for the first time since 1999.

Roughly 2,500 North Carolina inmates are in solitary.

As of early March, the most recent date for which prison officials provided information, seven inmates had been in solitary for more than 10 years. A prison spokesman denied the Observer’s request for the names of those inmates, citing a court ruling about the confidentiality of prisoner records. It’s unclear whether the other five inmates are still in solitary.

Inmates in solitary typically spend 22 to 24 hours a day in cells smaller than parking spaces, with strict limitations on visitors. When inmates do leave their cells for showers, recreation or therapy, they are usually handcuffed and accompanied by officers.

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 letters summarizing his struggles, Minnich said he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder – a condition that he attributes to the 13 straight years he has spent in solitary.

Minnich, 48, is serving a 31-year sentence for armed robbery, having sex with a minor and other offenses.

Dan Shain, a Rutgers University professor and friend of Minnich’s, doesn’t dispute that he deserved to go to prison. But he and inmate advocates say no one should be kept in solitary so long.

‘They had to do something’

State prison spokesman Keith Acree said he couldn’t specify how many hours Minnich is now confined to his cell, but said: “Significantly less than he was, I know that.”

North Carolina’s prisons have long relied on solitary confinement to discipline inmates, and to remove disruptive prisoners from the general population. But state officials say they’ve worked to reduce their use of the punishment as awareness grows about the dangerous psychological effects of isolating prisoners.

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.

Minnich said he was told he may soon be able to spend recreation time in an area about half the size of a basketball court – a substantial improvement over the steel cages where inmates in Unit One spend their recreation time. Also, he said, he may soon get to leave his cell periodically to mingle with other prisoners.

Minnich said that on Nov. 9, he met with several Central Prison leaders, including warden Edward Thomas. That was five days after an Observer reporter notified prison leaders that the newspaper was planning to publish a story about Minnich.

“They were not happy!” Minnich wrote. “My perception then and now is that they realized they had to do something, didn’t want to do it and were going to do the least possible, but make it ‘appear’ as though they were helping me.”

In a response to questions from the Observer, state prison commissioner David Guice said “media reports have no bearing on our decision-making process.”

Guice also said the prison system has been making changes that will “continue to contribute to a significant reduction in the need for restrictive housing, especially the use of it as a long-term solution to behavior problems.”

A path to more freedom

Minnich said he was moved to Central Prison’s new Therapeutic Diversion Unit, where inmates receive intensive mental health treatment as an alternative to solitary confinement.

Not everything about Minnich’s life has improved. He said prison officials took away some of his letters, his pens, his comb, his electric razor and what he described in a letter as “my most prized possession” – his radio.

Prison officials have told Minnich that no inmates in the mental health unit are allowed to have such items, he said.

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

In April 2000, Minnich slipped through the window of a moving sheriff’s van that was taking him to Central Prison. In 2007, he crafted a fake gun from bars of soap and then pointed it at prison officers, who were able to disarm him. In 2010, he offered three correctional officers $10,000 apiece to let him escape. The officers declined the deal and reported him.

But Minnich argues that many inmates who’ve committed more serious offenses in prison have done less time in solitary.

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.

State prison officials did not address Minnich’s claims that he is being treated unfairly.

Ames Alexander: 704-358-5060, @amesalex