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NC taking steps to reduce solitary - but has long way to go, study says

Mother shares letters from her bipolar son who has spent 13 years in solitary confinement

(This video was originally published in August 2016. Since then, Jason Swain has been released from solitary confinement and his mother has been allowed to visit with him.) Shirley Swain's son, Jason, is in prison, suffering from bipolar depressio
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(This video was originally published in August 2016. Since then, Jason Swain has been released from solitary confinement and his mother has been allowed to visit with him.) Shirley Swain's son, Jason, is in prison, suffering from bipolar depressio

North Carolina routinely puts inmates in solitary confinement for minor offenses, it too often keeps them there for years, and it too frequently releases them directly into the community with little preparation for the free world, a newly released study finds.

About 2,200 of North Carolina’s inmates are now in solitary confinement, meaning that they spend 22 to 23 hours alone each day in cells smaller than parking spaces. Research has found that solitary can cause and worsen mental illness.

A 2016 Charlotte Observer investigation found that seven N.C. inmates had spent more than a decade in solitary. Human rights experts call that torture.

One of those inmates suffered from bipolar depression, and became so disturbed in solitary that he began swallowing razor blades, ripping open his surgical incisions and plunging sharp objects into his open wounds.

The North Carolina prison system was one of five nationwide that teamed up with the Vera Institute of Justice to study ways to reduce the use of solitary.

In the 90-page report that state leaders released Friday, Vera commended the Department of Public Safety for steps its has taken to reduce the number of inmates in isolation. The state has cut that number by more than half since 2012.

But Vera, a nonprofit research and policy organization, also outlined a litany of problems. Among them:

▪ Prison officials place many inmates in solitary for minor infractions, such as using profanity or disobeying orders. Vera recommended reserving disciplinary segregation for the most serious infractions.

David Guice, chief deputy secretary for adult correction and juvenile justice, told the Observer he agreed with that recommendation. Prison leaders this year will roll out policy changes designed to prevent minor infractions from landing inmates in solitary, he said.

“We’ve got to do much better than that,” Guice said.

▪ Many inmates remain in isolation for years. For inmates in HCON, a highly restrictive solitary unit at Polk Correctional Institution, the average length of stay was almost five years. Vera urged the state to reduce the maximum lengths of time that inmates can be placed in solitary.

▪ Black inmates are placed in solitary more often than white prisoners. Forty seven percent of black inmates – and 50 percent of Native Americans – had spent at least one night in restrictive housing during the previous year, Vera reported. For white prisoners, the figure was 35 percent. The institute recommended that the state study the reasons for such disparities.

▪ The prison system faces severe staff shortages, with some facilities facing vacancy rates as high as 26 to 30 percent. That makes it harder for prison leaders to provide inmates alternatives to solitary.

▪ The prisons are releasing many inmates directly from solitary to the community, which the report said “can make an already difficult transition even more challenging.” During the 12 months ending on June 30, 2015, the state released 1,832 prisoners directly from restrictive housing to the community.

“That is unacceptable,” Guice said.

Vera recommended that the state move inmates out of solitary – and into housing units that can help prepare them for reentry into the community – before they are released. Guice said prison leaders have been working on programs to do just that.

▪ There are too few spots for inmates who fear for their safety in the general prison population. As a result, some commit disciplinary infractions just so they can get into solitary units where they’ll be better protected.

In the past two years, the state eliminated the use of segregation for inmates under 18. It also opened “therapeutic diversion units” intended to give inmates with mental illness an alternative to solitary. And it opened a separate unit to help inmates transition out of segregation.

Guice said prison leaders “embrace” Vera’s recommendations and plan to “implement everything we can implement.”

“These new recommendations will help us continue on the path toward a safer, more effective prison system that produces positive outcomes for inmates and decreases the chances of returning to prison,” he said in a news release.

Ames Alexander: 704-358-5060, @amesalex

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