DPS seeks $20M for prison mental health

State Prisons Commissioner David Guice says reforming the system's treatment of mentally ill inmates will require another $20 million.

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Laura Leslie
RALEIGH, N.C. — State Prisons Commissioner David Guice told lawmakers Thursday that needed reforms to the system's treatment of mentally ill inmates will cost an additional $20 million for more staffing. 

Guice was speaking before the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety at a meeting focused on how the state cares for inmates with mental illnesses. That meeting comes in the wake of last week's ruling in the case of Michael Kerr.

Kerr was an inmate with schizoaffective disorder who was incarcerated at Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville. He had been locked in "restrictive housing" – solitary confinement – for repeatedly failing to follow prison rules. After a medical check, he was left in handcuffs for five days, sitting in a pool of his own waste. State investigators say it's not clear whether he had access to food or water.

Kerr was sent to Central Prison's hospital in Raleigh via prison van but was dead when he arrived. An autopsy released in September found he had died of dehydration.

Nine prison workers were subsequently fired, including Shawn Blackburn, the former captain who made the decision to leave Kerr in handcuffs for five days. Blackburn appealed his firing, but lost his case last week. 

The Department of Public Safety said more than 30 workers had been disciplined or demoted in the wake of Kerr's death. But the investigation revealed that North Carolina's system of prison discipline is not set up to deal with mentally ill inmates.

Prison Health Services Director Terri Catlett told legislators that the proportion of inmates with diagnosed mental illness is rising. As of Dec. 1, 4,645 inmates were receiving mental health services, or about 12 percent of the total state prison population of 37,773.

Catlett said the mentally ill inmate population is more violent and aggressive than it used to be, and many are in long-term isolation from the general population.

Deputy Commissioner of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter told lawmakers he'd like them to receive more frequent treatment, "but every time a segregated inmate comes out of a cell, it takes two staff members" to escort the inmate to an appointment. 

"Are you keeping them in [their cells] for 23 hours?" committee co-chairwoman Rep. Pat Hurley, R-Randolph, asked Lassiter.

"Yes, ma'am," he answered.

"Day after day after day?" she asked. 

"Yes, ma'am," Lassiter responded.

"Don't they get worse?" Hurley asked.

"Some do," he answered.

Guice said changes are already underway. He said prison workers are receiving crisis intervention training, mental health screening tools are being updated and all policies dealing with mentally ill inmates are under review. 

He called the system's disciplinary model, which is meant to modify an inmate's behavior using isolation, "antiquated" and said it doesn't address issues with inmates who can't control their behavior in the first place. 

"It does no one any good for us to stick them further back in segregation," Guice told lawmakers. "We recognize that we can’t continue to do business as we’ve done it in the past."

However, Guice warned, the needed fixes – more therapy, more medical oversight, specialized units – won't be cheap, especially in a system that's already underfunded. For example, he said, budget cuts have emptied one-third of the beds at Central Prison's inpatient unit for severely mentally ill inmates.

The $20 million, he said, would pay for 372 additional staff positions, including the 64 needed to reopen all beds at Central Prison.

"We have to find a way to address those things differently than we have in the past," he told the panel. "I will tell you that it’s not easy, but but it’s something that we can do."