North Carolina inmates who break prison rules will spend significantly less time in solitary confinement under a new policy that state leaders hope will help make prisons safer.
Under the state’s new disciplinary policy, which went into effect on Monday, inmates who commit offenses generally can’t be sent to solitary for longer than 30 days. The old policy allowed prison officials to place rule-breakers in solitary for twice that long.
As of March, about 2,300 North Carolina prisoners were in solitary, meaning that they spent 22 to 23 hours alone each day in cells smaller than parking spaces.
Research has found that solitary can cause and worsen mental illness. As the global outcry against the practice grows, state prison leaders have worked to reduce their use of segregation. Since 2015, the number of inmates in solitary has dropped by more than 33 percent.
But as stories in the Observer have shown, some prisoners still remain in solitary for extraordinarily long periods. Last year, the newspaper found, seven North Carolina inmates had been in solitary for more than a decade.
One of them, Jason Swain, suffers from bipolar depression and spent more than 13 straight years in solitary confinement. Human rights experts called that torture. Swain has repeatedly swallowed razors, ripped open his surgical incisions and plunged sharp objects into his open wounds.
Despite the new changes, some inmates continue to be kept in solitary for long periods. Among them: prisoners who are repeatedly disruptive, and those who threaten the safety of staff or other inmates.
Swain, who is doing time for aiding and abetting a murder, is no longer in solitary, his mother Shirley Swain said Tuesday. Still, she said, “the damage has already been done.”
Prison spokesman Keith Acree wrote that the new disciplinary policy is part of an effort to use “evidence-based practices for managing inmate behavior, thereby creating a safer prison environment.”
But some prison officers worry that the policy could leave dangerous inmates with less to fear.
Jared Davis, a former officer at Lanesboro Correctional Institution, said he doesn’t believe 30 days is sufficient punishment for inmates who assault officers.
“I think that’s asking for trouble,” said Davis, who worked at the prison in Anson County from 2013 to 2016. “I think they’re going to lose a lot more officers over that policy.”
The new disciplinary policy incorporates recommendations from the Vera Institute of Justice, which recently teamed up with the state to examine ways to reduce the use of solitary.
A study by the institute found that North Carolina routinely puts inmates in solitary confinement for minor offenses. The study also found that the state too often keeps prisoners in solitary for years and that it too frequently releases them directly into the community with little preparation for society.
State prison leaders say they’re trying to change all of that. In the past two years, North Carolina 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.
North Carolina’s new disciplinary policy reduces the maximum penalties for virtually all offenses. For instance, it:
▪ Limits time in solitary to 30 days for inmates who commit Class A offenses, the most serious kind. Among those offenses: assaulting an officer and fighting with weapons.
▪ Reduces time in isolation for those who commit Class B offenses, the second-most serious class. The old policy allowed such prisoners to be placed in solitary for up to 45 days, but the new policy limits the time to 20 days. Those offenses include committing sexual acts and fighting without weapons.
▪ Eliminates solitary altogether for those who commit Class C offenses. The old policy allowed prison officials to isolate such inmates for up to 30 days. Those offenses include disobeying a prison official’s orders and paying bribes.
The new policy also stipulates that “special consideration must be given to those offenders whose mental illness contributed significantly to their behavior.” For instance, the policy states, inmates will not be cited for any violations that occur as a result of them being placed in mental health restraints.
Robert Webster, a former state prison captain, said that while he has not yet read the new disciplinary policy, it sounds like a “double-edged sword.”
He’s concerned that the policy may send inmates the message that they will face few consequence if they refuse to obey orders. But he’s pleased that prisoners who break the rules will spend less time in solitary.
“It’s a proven fact that the longer they spend in segregation, the worse they get,” Webster said.
Reporter Gavin Off contributed to this story.