Raleigh, N.C. — Almost a year and a half after a mentally ill inmate died of dehydration in state custody, civil rights groups have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the North Carolina prison system's solitary confinement practices.
In a letter to the DOJ's Civil Rights Division – sent Monday by N.C. Prisoner Legal Services, the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, the ACLU of North Carolina, the University of North Carolina School of Law Human Rights Policy Seminar, the UNC Center for Civil Rights and N.C. Stop Torture Now – the groups say the state prison system "failed to adopt consequential reforms despite its recognition that the system is in crisis."
About 14 percent of the state's more than 38,000 inmates are housed in solitary confinement. As of October 2014, according to a report by a state Department of Public Safety consultant, nearly 20 percent of inmates in solitary confinement were receiving some form of mental health treatment – a number that was likely undercounting the population of inmates with mental health issues.
As of March 2014, that population included 53-year-old Michael Anthony Kerr, who had spent more than a month in solitary confinement. Five days before he died of dehydration in the back of a prison van on the way to Central Prison in Raleigh, Kerr was left handcuffed and barely moving in his cell.
Last month, the state announced a $2.5 million settlement with Kerr's family after a letter from the Attorney General's Office found the state's liability in the death "inescapable." State officials also note they've rolled out several reform efforts, such as crisis intervention training for officers, and are pushing for more.
Kerr is one of several inmates mentioned in the letter who the groups say have received inhumane treatment as a result of the "dangerous and unconstitutional" use of isolation in North Carolina.
"These stories are not outliers but rather evidence of a profoundly misguided isolation regime," the letter says.
The groups attribute much of the problem to the decline of community mental health services that began with a reform effort in 2001, which the letter says "wreaked havoc" on the mental health system and sent many of those suffering from mental illness to jails.
"For people needing help, the system is fractured, chaotic and difficult to navigate. Mental health and developmental disability systems are siloed. Provider requirements and the means of accessing services frequently change. And authorized services are often time-limited and inadequate," the letter says.
President Barack Obama in recent weeks has called for a review of solitary confinement in prisons nationwide.
In North Carolina, the state's own assessments have recommended major changes to the way prisons manage their isolated inmates and mental health patients. In reports in 2012 and 2014, for example, consultant and psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Metzner said inmates in solitary confinement should receive at least 20 hours outside their cell per week for therapeutic programming and recreational time. At Alexander Correctional Institution, where Kerr was housed, Metzner found inmates in solitary left their cells less than five hours a week.
Even state prison officials have signaled the need for change. Prisons Commissioner David Guice has pushed for raises in the state budget to help fill chronically understaffed correctional officer positions. As part of that budget package, Guice and the Governor's Office have also asked lawmakers for more than $24 million to expand mental health treatment at Central Prison and other facilities.
"It's very important for folks to realize we have got to address the mental health needs in our system differently than we have in the past," Guice said in an interview with WRAL News in early July. "We can no longer not take action when action needs to be taken."
Lawmakers in the state House and Senate appear likely to move on the issue as they hammer out a budget compromise in the coming weeks, but it will fall far short of the governor's proposal. The House version would fund only about half the amount, with the Senate plan funding only a quarter of it.
Guice has said he believes the result of the General Assembly's budget negotiations will mean more positive outcomes for mentally ill inmates. DPS officials have also pointed to their participation in a grant program from the Vera Institute of Justice to examine alternatives to the use of solitary confinement.
But in their letter, civil rights groups assert this is not enough.
"North Carolina’s prison mental health and isolation regimes remain unchanged, and its budget proposals in no way match the severity of the crisis," the letter reads. "If not before, it is now obvious that North Carolina does not have the wherewithal or the will to solve this problem."