Raleigh, N.C. — When a group of civil rights organizations wrote the U.S. Department of Justice last week to request a federal investigation of North Carolina's prison system, their language was blunt.
In recounting the experience of several inmates held in solitary confinement, the groups described "a system blinking red" and state leaders that had neither "the wherewithal or the will to solve this problem."
"Every day that the status quo endures without intervention, North Carolina's system for housing inmates in solitary confinement claims more victims to needless suffering and death," the letter to the DOJ's Civil Rights Division read.
Six advocacy organizations signed onto that letter, and several other mental health and prisoner rights groups have echoed similar concerns about sluggish reform in the years since the state's own assessments recommended major changes to the way prisons manage inmates in so-called restrictive housing.
"Those changes have been very slow coming," said Elizabeth Forbes, director of the prisoner advocacy group NC-CURE.
Although the Department of Public Safety has taken some action, especially since the dehydration death of a mentally ill inmate last year, even prison leaders have expressed their frustration at how long it's taken to improve the treatment of prisoners.
"I truly believe we can make a difference," prisons Commissioner David Guice said in an interview last week. "It just takes us longer, and I just don’t seem to have the patience of Job here."
To make that difference, advocates and prison officials alike say they'll need funding. But even if state lawmakers grant that funding in their ongoing debate over the state budget, prison officials say fundamental changes to the state's practice of solitary confinement won't necessarily be swift.
Some corrective action already taking place
Since inmate Michael Kerr died of dehydration in March 2014 after more than 30 days in solitary confinement, corrections officials say the North Carolina prisons system has been busy implementing reforms.
Although some of the efforts were in the works before officers found Kerr unresponsive in the back of a prison van, Guice said the mentally ill inmate's death underscored the need for change, especially when it comes to solitary confinement.
"We will always have some type of restrictive housing concept, simply because we have some folks that their behavior is such that we have to protect others around them, whether it be staff or other inmates," Guice said. "However, we’ve been very concerned about the mental health piece of those that fall in that category and the broad stroke of using restrictive housing."
Instead of a focus on punishment to control behavior, Guice is pushing for more incentives for good decisions, as well as additional programming focused on rehabilitation.
But doing that will mean a sea change for North Carolina prisons, which like those in the rest of the country were historically set up to enforce court-ordered detention.
Guice said prison leaders are working to reevaluate the entire prison system, from the point inmates enter to the process of transitioning them back into the community.
It's an effort Tim Moose, deputy commissioner for prison operations, describes as "a challenge and a task."
"It is true, in a sense, that it doesn’t move as fast as we would like for it to," Moose said. "On the other hand, this kind of change does lay the foundation, and once you have that foundation in place, the rafters go up faster. But you have to get that foundation up first."
As an intermediate step to and from solitary confinement, prison officials have implemented "modified housing" at a number of facilities, allowing inmates more out-of-cell time without restraints. The housing designation also requires inmates to complete programming, such as anger management, before going back to the general population.
"We had some serious assaults on mod housing, but we haven’t stopped that program," Kenneth Lassiter, deputy director of operations for state prisons, said. "We’ve expanded it even though we’ve had staff assaulted because we know it’s the right thing to try to do."
Lassiter said prison administrators are also reviewing long-term restrictive housing cases every 60 or 90 days, rather than every six months, meaning inmates have the opportunity to move out of isolation more quickly.
Sister of inmate who died of thirst encourages reform Part of the effort has involved "remissioning" several of the 56 prison facilities across the state – essentially changing the types of inmates they typically house.
Mentally ill inmates at Alexander Correctional, where Kerr was left handcuffed in his cell for five days before his death, were moved to Maury Correctional on the other side of the state. Along with $100,000 in building improvements, prison officials say consolidating mental health treatment and resources at Maury and Central Prison in Raleigh will mean that inmates receive better care.
"We’re no longer housing anyone that’s been diagnosed with a mental illness on long-term restrictive housing at no other facility than Central Prison and Maury," Lassiter said. "Those two facilities were two of the first facilities of the mission change as relates to having the right staff and the right locations."
That effort hasn't impressed Chris Brook, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, one of the signatories of the request to investigate the state prison system.
"The 'except for' is a pretty big except for," Brook said. "That's still DPS acknowledging they do house inmates with mental illness in solitary confinement."
Brook acknowledged, however, that Guice's efforts toward reform have been welcome.
"It is certainly a beginning to have a shared appreciation of problems associated with prison mental health services and the scope off those problems," Brook said. "But a shared appreciation is only so meaningful."
What the prison system needs now, prison and mental health advocates agree, are more resources to implement much-needed broader changes.
"Everyone knows that this problem is much broader than DPS," Brook said. "They do not have adequate funding to meet the challenges they face."
Advocates worry budget will come up short
|Officer pay||Mental health total||Treatment centers||Central Prison beds|
The issue of funding is now before state legislators in the House and the Senate, who continue to wrestle with the details of the $21.74 billion 2015-16 state budget.
A former lawmaker himself, Guice began appealing to the General Assembly for more money even before Gov. Pat McCrory released his budget proposal earlier this year. In it, McCrory called for $45 million over the next two years to increase correctional officer pay, open more mental health beds at Central Prison and establish treatment centers at eight maximum security prisons.
Prison leaders hope raises will end lingering officer shortages To Vicki Smith, executive director of Disability Rights North Carolina, McCrory's proposal would be a major step toward reform – and it matches the sense of urgency she's seen within DPS.
"This administration has been the most amendable to talking about change," Smith said.
But she and other advocates are watching the budget negotiations carefully.
The House and the Senate have approved competing versions of the state spending plan.
In some areas, lawmakers from both chambers agree. Each funds raises for correctional officers and the 66 new positions needed to open up the Central Prison Mental Health Facility to its full capacity. Although the amounts are slightly different, they largely align with the governor's proposal.
But the House version slashed in half a measure that would open "therapeutic control units" to more effectively manage mentally ill inmate populations. The Senate would fund the effort at one facility at a cost of $2.2 million – about one-tenth of what McCrory proposed.
That was a disappointment to advocates such as Forbes, at NC-CURE.
"It indicates North Carolina has other priorities," she said. "It is not in mental health and it certainly is not criminal justice."
Sen. Stan Bingham, R-Davidson, co-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Justice and Public Safety, argues lawmakers have made investments in the prison system, for example at the prison hospital at Central. The feeling in the Senate, he said, was that it was better to take incremental steps toward reform.
"That's always a difficult issue to fund because you will get folks referring to schools, etc., and it always seems like [justice and public safety] is at the bottom of the priority list," Bingham said.
Bingham's counterpart in the House, Rep. Pat Hurley, R-Randolph, said many of her fellow lawmakers are committed to fixing the issues in state prisons.
"All of our committee chairs are on board with the fact that something's got to be done," said Hurley, who co-chairs the House Appropriations Committee on Justice and Public Safety. "If the money's there, I feel sure this will be one of our priorities."
Brook said the Senate budget was "grossly inadequate to the meet the scope of challenges" in the system.
Other advocates agree.
"The fear is that they will just throw a token at it," Smith said.
Bingham said he and his Senate colleagues are all interested in reform, especially after the Kerr case brought to light "the deficiencies in some of the aspects of the prison system."
As for the difference between the House and Senate funding, he said it's now mostly just politics.
"My thoughts would be that we'll probably move closer to the House's position on this," Bingham said.
That would be a good thing, Guice said, because it would give prison leaders the flexibility to implement better treatment options and more accurately identify mental illness in inmates entering the system – a necessity for a system prison consultants say is likely undercounting those who need treatment.
"I personally believe that if we get the eight therapeutic control units that the house proposed, we will be able to find ways to manage the change for the assessment tool and the assessment staff from within," Guice said. "That will carry us a far piece."
Prison chief: 'We have to have the funding'
When they tally the numbers these days, prison leaders say they're able to show a clear sign of progress when it comes to inmates in solitary confinement.
"We used to have inmates lined up to go in long-term restrictive housing," Lassiter said. "Now, we have 300 vacant long-term restrictive housing beds that are at our disposal to remission and repurpose."
They're expecting those vacancies will increase as they move to consolidate long-term restrictive housing as they've done with residential mental health beds.
Fewer people in solitary is just one metric advocates such as Smith say they want to see. She said she would also define successful reform as less time spent in restrictive housing and fewer repeat offenders. Others want to see those vacancies sustained.
"I think the administration is earnestly trying to get people out of solitary confinement," Forbes said. "I do not believe they're going to stay out of solitary confinement."
Forbes said she doesn't doubt the intent of Guice's efforts. His vision for reform, she said, represents a big shift for North Carolina prisons that will need buy-in from state lawmakers and prison administrators alike.
"I do not believe that Commissioner Guice has the support he needs to reform our system in North Carolina," Forbes said.
Flanked by three of his top corrections administrators last week, Guice said he has that support.
"The leadership team at these prisons truly believes, as I believe, that we can in fact be successful with these goals," Guice said. "But we have to have the funding."
He said he would have no concerns if federal investigators granted advocates' request for a probe into the state's solitary confinement practices. He pointed out the division has already sought outside help on the issue through a national grant from the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice.
"We’re about change – we’re about doing things different – and if you’re concerned about someone taking a look at what you’re doing, then you’re not all for change," he said. "I’m supportive if someone wants to take a look."
Whether investigators come or not, Smith said she hopes the possibility will spur long overdue action on a problem decades in the making.
"If the General Assembly wants to keep the U.S. DOJ out of North Carolina, then they really need to fund the governor's proposal," Smith said. "Anything less than that is just going to be a start."