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North Carolina Reforms Solitary Confinement Policies Following Vera Report

by Derek Gilna

The non-profit Vera Institute of Justice, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, published a report in December 2016 that detailed excessive use of solitary confinement in North Carolina’s prison system. The report, titled “Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative: Findings and Recommendations for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety,” contained “an assessment of DPS’s use of segregation and ... ways to decrease its use.” At the time of the report, almost 8% of the state’s prison population was held in solitary.

 “Advocacy organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union have opposed the use of solitary confinement, and media outlets like Solitary Watch and The Marshall Project have published reports, news articles, and fact sheets on the topic,” the report stated. It also noted that “the National Commission on Correctional Health Care recently issued a position statement on isolation encompassing 17 principles and calling for the elimination of ‘prolonged solitary confinement’ (defined as more than 15 consecutive days).”

In addition to those organizations, the U.S. Department of Justice has also recognized that long stints in solitary confinement can cause serious mental health problems in even previously well-adjusted prisoners, and has advocated for “widespread reform of restrictive housing practices in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and beyond.” [See, e.g.: PLN, Dec. 2017, p.57].

In compiling data for the report, Vera discovered that juvenile and young adult prisoners as well as the mentally ill were “overrepresented in DPS’s restrictive housing units ... 32 percent of youth (under 18 years of age) and 17 percent of young adults (18-25 years old) were in restrictive housing, compared to 8 percent of people 26 and older. Incarcerated people who required mental health treatment involving psychotropic medication and therapy, but who did not require placement in a designated mental health unit, made up 8 percent of the regular population but 14 percent of the population in disciplinary segregation and 24 percent” in controlled housing units.

The report noted that while the study of DPS facilities was underway, state prison officials made numerous changes to their solitary confinement policies – including prohibiting solitary for juveniles, establishing Therapeutic Diversion units as an alternative to restrictive housing for prisoners with greater mental health treatment needs, creating a “Rehabilitative Diversion Unit to help transition people from segregation to regular population,” and requiring staff training on communication and de-escalation techniques.

Finally, Vera concluded with recommendations for DPS to “safely reduce its use of restrictive housing,” including curtailing “the number of disciplinary infractions eligible for segregation sanctions [and] ... the maximum length of segregation sanctions, [expanding] available alternative sanctions to disciplinary segregation, expand[ing] and track[ing] the current practice of pre-disciplinary counseling, and encourag[ing] other informal ways to resolve minor offenses,” while maintaining programming and other incentives to encourage better behavior among prisoners.

The DPS implemented a new disciplinary policy in July 2017 that limits the amount of time prisoners spend in solitary confinement to no more than 30 days for Class A offenses, 20 days for Class B and no segregation for Class C. Around 2,300 North Carolina prisoners were held in solitary as of March 2017--a reduction of 33% since 2015. However, according to the Charlotte Observer, seven state prisoners have been in segregation for over 10 years.

The new policy incorporates some of the recommendations made in the Vera report, including a provision that states “special consideration must be given to those offenders whose mental illness contributed significantly to their behavior.” 


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