December 09, 2014
Published: Monday, December 8, 2014 at 10:55 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 8, 2014 at 10:55 a.m.
In Southeastern North Carolina, county jails have cells that can be used to separate prisoners from the general population. Officials may use the cells to isolate unruly inmates or for other reasons, such as medical issues or for their protection.
Inmates serving time in prisons and jails are already separated from society. Once they are behind bars, placing inmates in what's called solitary confinement is too much isolation, according to a report released by a group from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law.
The report states solitary confinement amounts to torture and should be banned.
Solitary as torture?
"Solitary confinement" is not a legal term, but a common one that can have various meanings, according to the report. The authors define solitary confinement as the isolation of an inmate from 22 to 24 hours a day.
In North Carolina's prisons, the report estimates a tenth of inmates are serving time in solitary at any given time. About 20 percent of N.C. inmates in solitary require mental health treatment.
"Solitary confinement violates the boundaries of human dignity and justice and should no longer be tolerated in North Carolina or anywhere else," UNC law professor Deborah M. Weissman said in a statement. Weissman was the faculty advisor for the report, which was made in collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, North Carolina Stop Torture Now and the law firm Edelstein and Payne.
"The evidence shows that solitary confinement is not only ineffective at decreasing violence, preserving public safety, or managing scare monetary resources, but more importantly, it often arbitrarily subjects inmates to circumstances that can be described only as torture," Weissman said.
Earlier this year, a 54-year-old North Carolina inmate died sometime after spending 35 days in solitary confinement.
An autopsy found Michael Anthony Kerr died of dehydration. Kerr, who had schizophrenia, was not receiving treatment for his mental illness.
Kerr had been isolated at Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville but was found unresponsive after being driven to a mental hospital at Central Prison in Raleigh.
The UNC report included a narrative from a woman who spent 28 days in solitary confinement in a Cumberland County jail. At times, she would go days without communicating with people.
"It feels like the walls were closing in," she said in an interview published in the report. She felt anger, hostility toward the guards and profound sadness. She said certain guards made the experience even worse, such as by only providing toilet paper for a single-use basis.
Closer look at solitary
The New Hanover County jail has a disciplinary unit with 16 single-person cells that generally stay full, said Sgt. Jerry Brewer, a spokesman for the sheriff's office.
Inmates are confined to the cells for 23 hours a day. They receive one hour of recreation time.
Lesser punishments for inmates in normal housing may be a loss of recreation time or being locked down to their cells for 24 hours.
Disciplinary housing is the "end game," Brewer said, adding that inmates have repeatedly shown they will not follow the rules. Inmates initially go to disciplinary for 45 days, but he said it may get reduced. After 45 days, inmates can ask for a review of their status.
Brewer defended the use of disciplinary housing as means of control.
"If we just let them do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, then we'd have problems," he said. "It's easy to sit back as a professor or a law student and say, ‘This is inhumane.'" The inmates' actions land them in disciplinary units, Brewer said. "Their actions may be inhumane. They've shown you that they're going to hurt people. So what do you need to do? You need to put them in a situation where they can't hurt people."
James Payne, a defense attorney with offices in Wilmington and Shallotte, said jails seem to use solitary confinement to exercise discipline and as a means to protect the jail population. While he said a fair person could understand why it may be necessary in certain circumstances, the practice is objectionable when it becomes a tool to inflict added punishment on someone already being punished.
"The concern from a criminal defense perspective is that the effects of solitary confinement can violate the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution which protects citizens from cruel and unusual punishment," Payne said.
"Studies have shown that solitary confinement can inflict mental damage, emotional damage, physical damage," Payne said. "If we are doing that to a person that has been removed from society and then we expect to return them to society, then we're not only inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on them – we're returning someone to society that cannot function well."
Elsewhere in Southeastern N.C.
In Pender County's jail in Burgaw, there are two single-cell multipurpose units, said Capt. Samenthia Jones.
"That's still considered solitary because for some, they don't like to be by themselves," Jones said.
The single cells stay full at the overcrowded jail. Inmates who come in upset may land in the cell, but could go to general population when they calm down, Jones said. Inmates who have trouble mixing in general population could be sent to a single cell. Medical professionals can also recommend an inmate be kept apart, Jones said.
In Brunswick County, the jail has segregation units for inmates being disciplined or kept separate from the general population, said Emily Flax, a spokeswoman. Those inmates are isolated for 23 hours a day.
The New Hanover Correctional Center is a minimum-security state prison just off North 23rd Street near the Wilmington International Airport.
Inmates are assigned to a dormitory with an open room full of bunks. The prison has four cells for inmates being segregated from the general population, said Keith Acree, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety.
Two of the cells are large and can hold up to eight inmates and the other two house only one person.
"While these cells do serve to segregate inmates from the regular population when necessary, they could not be called ‘solitary' because there are other inmates present," Acree wrote in an email.
Acree said inmates who need to be segregated in the long-term are transferred to other prisons.
This story contains material from the Associated Press.
Julian March: 910-343-2099
On Twitter: @julian_march