North Carolina inmates in solitary confinement are kept in cells that are no bigger than a parking space for 22 to 24 hours a day with little to no human contact. If they were healthy before being confined to such extreme punishment, they often get sick, and if they were unhealthy, it exacerbates their situation.
The ACLU is arguing solitary confinement is a form of cruel and unusual punishment in a new lawsuit filed this week against Erik Hooks, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and the agency itself. Rocky Dewalt, Robert Parham, Anthony McGee and Shawn Bonnett are named plaintiffs in the suit who have spent collectively more than 23 years in solitary confinement.
“Typical adverse effects [from solitary confinement] include depression, panic, paranoia, anxiety, self-mutilation, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, cardiovascular disease, hallucinations, extreme social withdrawal, and exacerbation or recurrence of preexisting mental illness,” the lawsuit states. “These effects often begin within just a few hours or days of placement in solitary, and do not necessarily end when the placement does. People who leave solitary often continue to suffer from severe social withdrawal, symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress, and increased risks of suicide and drug overdose.
“A growing chorus of medical professionals, courts, and public officials have acknowledged the potentially devastating effects of solitary confinement, the practice’s limited utility in promoting rehabilitation and public safety, and the need for change.”
The lawsuit states that DPS routinely subjects thousands of North Carolina inmates to prolonged or indefinite amounts of solitary confinement.
In addition to living in small spaces with minimal human interaction and no meaningful access to the outdoors, out-of-cell “recreation” for inmates in solitary confinement typically consists of no more than five hours a week in a slightly larger cell, according to the lawsuit. Those inmates eat their meals alone, just a few feet from where they urinate and defecate.
“Defendants do not reserve solitary confinement as a punishment for the most severe disciplinary infractions, or as an emergency measure for addressing safety threats,” the document states. “People who commit minor infractions, such as cursing at a guard, may spend months in isolation as a result. Defendants’ policies do not even require a conviction of any prison rule violation before placing someone in North Carolina’s ‘supermax’ unit.
“While some people in Defendants’ custody commit serious infractions, they often do so as a result of severe, untreated mental illness. Prolonged solitary confinement will only exacerbate their illness, stunting rehabilitation and making prison conditions all the more dangerous.”
The ACLU maintains that viable alternatives to solitary confinement exist, and they ask the court to declare restrictive housing policies and practices as unconstitutional. Read the full lawsuit below.