Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

ACLU of NC asks court to declare solitary confinement unconstitutional

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.



Aclu Pls Solitary Complaint 10 16 19 (Text)

Environment

Burr, Tillis reject effort to overturn Trump power plant rule

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate on Thursday rejected Democrats’ attempt to overturn a controversial Trump administration power plant regulation.

Democrats forced a Senate floor vote on a resolution to block the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s power plant rule, which was seen as a weaker replacement for an Obama-era regulation to clamp down on power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions.

The effort was seen as largely symbolic, given that Democrats hold 45 seats in the chamber (two independent senators also caucus with the Democrats). The resolution required only a majority to pass, but it fell short by a vote of 41-53.

Both North Carolina Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr voted against the measure.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who’s facing a tough re-election bid next year, was the only Republican who broke ranks to support the effort. Three Democrats — Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Doug Jones of Alabama Joe Manchin of West Virginia — sided with most of the GOP in voting against the resolution.

A Sinema spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“In Maine, our economy is inextricably linked to the environment. Our state, which is situated at the end of the nation’s air pollution tailpipe, has made substantial progress in reducing harmful emissions by increasing energy efficiency, adopting clean energy technologies, and improving air quality and public health,” Collins said in a statement. “While I am pleased by the progress our country has already made in reducing air pollutants, the Administration’s rule to repeal and rewrite the Clean Power Plan is a step in the wrong direction.”

Senate Democrats sought to force their Republican colleagues to go on the record backing a Trump rule that critics say falls short of what’s needed to combat climate change.

“The Trump administration’s Dirty Power Scam comes at a time when Americans are demanding we take bold action to confront the climate crisis and it must be reversed,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said last week when he announced the vote.

Senate Republicans control the voting schedule in the chamber, but Democrats were able to force a vote using the Congressional Review Act. The law allows Congress to overturn federal agencies’ regulations within 60 days after a rule is finalized. A CRA vote can be placed on the Senate calendar by securing the signatures of 30 members.

The Trump EPA regulation, dubbed the “Affordable Clean Energy” rule, was put forward as a replacement for President Barack Obama’s “Clean Power Plan.” The Obama measure was a centerpiece of the administration’s efforts to fight climate change and would have set national emission limits for coal-fired power plants. The Trump EPA argued that Obama’s approach was illegal, and gives states far more flexibility over cutting emissions, The New York Times reported in June when the rule was finalized.

“The EPA has a congressionally mandated duty to protect the human health and the environment,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who authored the resolution. “The EPA has abdicated its responsibility in promulgating this deeply flawed rule.”

News

ECU Trustees chair on interim chancellor: “no doors closed”

Like the rest of the East Carolina University community, ECU Board of Trustees Chairman Vern Davenport is waiting on the UNC System to make a decision on whether it will retain interim chancellor Dan Gerlach.

At the end of last month Gerlach was filmed and photographed playing drinking games, dancing and socializing with students in a bar near campus. Several photos showed him hugging or putting his arm around young women in a way some found inappropriate.

Gerlach, who had hoped to be made the school’s next permanent chancellor, was placed on administrative leave “pending further investigation.”

Vern Davenport, Chairman of the ECU Board of Trustees

That investigation is still ongoing, Davenport said in an interview with Policy Watch this week, with the ultimate decision resting with UNC System Interim President Bill Roper.

“I would say this is obviously sitting squarely in Dr. Roper’s camp,” Davenport said. “I communicate with Dr. Roper almost every day on this subject. I support on Dr. Roper in this investigation.”

“It’s in Dan’s best interest and the entire East Carolina community’s best interest that a thorough investigation be done and I expect it to be concluded quickly,” Davenport said. “Which direction it’s going… I have no comment on that. But I do support he process that we’re going through.”

Davenport had praise for the job Gerlach has done as interim chancellor generally.

“He’s done a great job of engaging with staff, students and the community, leveraging his personality,” Davenport said. “Pirate Nation has valued that and appreciates that.”

He also acknowledged — as Gerlach has himself — that the incident didn’t show good judgement.

“I think Dan would probably say he stayed too long,” Davenport said of Gerlach’s evening at the bar. “Clearly we don’t want to be in the situation we’re in.”

Asked if Gerlach will still be a candidate as ECU searches for its next permanent leader, Davenport said that will depend on the outcome of the investigation.

“I don’t think any doors have been closed,” Davenport said. “I think we have to see what the investigation comes out with.”

Either way, Davenport said, ECU is now beginning its search process.

“That process is starting as we speak and my objective is to conclude it before students return to school next fall,” Davenport said. “We’re anxious to get this particular chapter closed.”

 

 

Environment

Facts aren’t lining up in 1,4-Dioxane discharge by City of Greensboro, Shamrock Environmental

Shamrock Environmental in Browns Summit is across from the NC Soccer Complex. Nearly half the 7,100 residents in the census tract are from communities of color. There are more than two dozen permitted pollution sources in the area. (Map: DEQ Community Mapping System)

People who rely on the town of Pittsboro for their drinking water were likely exposed to high levels of 1,4-Dioxane for about a week in August, after the City of Greensboro discharged the compound, a likely carcinogen, into a tributary of the Haw River.

Levels of 1,4-Dioxane spiked to 114 parts per billion in the town’s drinking water in August, shortly after the discharge. Although the EPA doesn’t regulate 1,4-Dioxane, it has established a lifetime health goal of 0.35 ppb. At the drinking water forum sponsored by the Haw River Assembly in Pittsboro last night, NC State University scientist Detlef Knappe called the concentrations “very alarming.”

He estimated people were exposed to these levels for about six days before the contaminated water traveled through the town’s system.

North Carolina Health News first reported the discharge and spike in the 1,4-Dioxane levels in drinking water.

But many questions remain about who knew what and when — and the answers have not been forthcoming.

The discharge originated at Shamrock Environmental in Browns Summit. The facility contracts with other industries throughout the Southeast for oil recycling, hazardous and non-hazardous waste hauling and storage, and decontamination and vacuum services for trucks. In a press release, Shamrock Environmental said its facility, located in an industrial park, discharged 15,825 gallons of “non-hazardous wastewater” originating from a customer that did not report the material contained 1,4-Dioxane, a likely human carcinogen. The discharge occurred on Aug. 7.

Monty Hagler, spokesman for Shamrock Environmental declined to name the customer to Policy Watch.

The wastewater then entered the TZ Osborne Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greensboro, which in turn discharged it into South Buffalo Creek, a tributary of the Haw River. 1,4-Dioxane then contaminated the Haw River, the drinking water supplies for thousands of people living downstream.

However, the City of Greensboro did not inform state environmental officials of the discharge until Sept. 27. That’s when the city submitted its monthly discharge report for August, and mentioned it to DEQ staff.  DEQ did not announce the discharge until mid-October. Neither DEQ nor Greensboro would name Shamrock as the source of the contamination until North Carolina Health News reported their refusal.

City officials reportedly told DEQ that they were unclear when or if they needed to report the discharge because 1,4 dioxane is an emerging contaminant and does not have a specific permit condition.

It’s unclear why Greensboro officials were unaware of the reporting requirements; a city spokeswoman could not be reached by phone or email for clarification.

In fact, a press release from the city says that since 2015 Greensboro “has been proactive in working with NCDEQ and the industry” to reduce the discharge of 1,4-Dioxane “to the maximum extent practicable” — about 80 percent. The city also noted that it had identified Shamrock Environmental in Browns Summit as a “significant source” of the compound as early as 2015.

And, according to DEQ documents online, the TZ Osborne plant had been monitoring its 1,4-Dioxane discharge since December 2017. DEQ also sampled sites in the Cape Fear River Basin in 2018 and posted the results online.

Then in April of this year DEQ sent letters to treatment plants and industrial dischargers throughout the Cape Fear River Basin about a three-month investigative monitoring program to begin in July. The letter specifically mentioned 1,4-Dioxane.

On July 22, 2019, DEQ requested the plant provide a plan to reduce the amount of the compound leaving the plant. That plan was due Sept. 23.

According to online records, Shamrock Environmental has not been cited for violations in North Carolina, although the database is not comprehensive. But the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency did issue a Notice of Violation to the company in March 2016 for failing to obtain a proper hazardous waste manifest.

1,4-Dioxane has long been a contaminant of concern in the entire Cape Fear River Basin. In 2014, DEQ began a monitoring program from Reidsville to Wilmington, including the Haw River, the Cape Fear and several tributaries.

That monitoring showed levels as high as 1,030 ppb near Reidsville and 543 ppb near McLeansville.

Previous monitoring of Pittsboro’s drinking water showed varying levels of 1,4-Dioxane:

  • 15.6 ppb in 2014
  • 17.1 ppb in 2015
  • 7.5 ppb in 2016

A second monitoring period ran over 18 months from 2017 to 2018. That sampling showed levels of 1,4-Dioxane at 35 ppb in the Haw River near Pittsboro on May 9, 2018.

On June 13, 2018, the compound was found at 11 ppb in the upper arm of Jordan Lake, where the Haw enters the reservoir. Jordan Lake is the drinking water supply for hundreds of thousands of people, including those living in Chatham and Wake counties.

Julie Grzyb, a permit writer in the Division of Water Resources, told attendees at a public forum in Pittsboro last night that the state could pursue enforcement action against the city. Even though Shamrock was the discharger, Greensboro is held responsible because it holds the discharge permit. DEQ could also enter into a Special Order by Consent with Greensboro, a legal document that lays out requirements for facilities that are “unable to consistently comply with the terms, conditions, or limitations” in their discharge permits.

News

Does Florida hemp experience raise caution flags for NC?

Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

[Editor’s note: As more and more states embrace the idea that hemp could be a financial boon for farmers and entrepreneurs, news from Florida appears to raise some caution flags. The following story from journalist Laura Cassels of the Florida Phoenix reports that the hemp forecast — at least for the sunshine state — appears to have turned cloudy.]

Hemp hype? Some observers fear Florida is setting up small farmers for failure

Hemp — the hip, new superstar of the agriculture world — is getting a lot of buzz within farming and political circles in Florida and nationally. But hemp harvests this fall aren’t matching the hype, portending disaster for small growers while manufacturers and retailers stand to get rich.

Nikki Fried, Florida’s commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, has been particularly active in promoting hemp as an alternative for farmers in the Panhandle who suffered devastating crop losses during Hurricane Michael one year ago.

Experience in other states raises questions about whether farmers would be wise to bet the farm on hemp absent more work toward developing production chains and best practices for this crop.

Fried is aware of the risks. “She’s made it a top priority to align all the moving parts to ensure Florida’s hemp program becomes the nation’s best,” said Karol Molinares, the commissioner’s deputy communications director, in a written response to questions raised by the Florida Phoenix.

“There aren’t yet issues here with glut, shortage of contracts, or processing bottlenecks. These types of issues would exist with any newly developing industry. Hemp presents an extraordinary economic opportunity for the farmers you mentioned, who have asked for access to alternative crops like hemp,” she added.

“The department is continuing efforts to establish processing, manufacturing, and retailing capacity, concurrent with cultivation, testing, and other issues,” Molinares said. She supplied no details beyond noting Fried’s hiring of Holly Bell, a former financial adviser to cannabis companies, to lead the hemp program. Neither Fried nor Bell were available for comment.

Meanwhile, Jerry Fankhauser, logistics coordinator for the University of Florida IFAS Industrial Hemp Pilot Project — one of two university-based programs working on the problem — voiced cautious optimism.

“Everyone I see tells me that all the potential growers are doing their homework,” Fankhauser said. But if you can’t tolerate risk, he said, “don’t plant more acres than you can stand to lose.”

The Florida legislature authorized the hemp pilot project at the University of Florida and another at Florida A&M University in 2017. The state is expected to begin issuing hemp cultivation permits in 2020. Following nationwide legalization of hemp in the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill, Florida authorized hemp farming in the Sunshine State earlier this year. Fried’s agency is developing rules for the program and plans to seek federal approval this fall. Public hearings on the draft rules are set for Friday in Tallahassee and Monday, Oct. 21, in Tampa. The public comment period ends on Oct. 31.

‘At risk of being wasted’

To understand the potential pitfalls, consider Pennsylvania, where hemp is widely cultivated but half of that state’s crop has no buyers and may go to waste, according to Pennsylvania State University’s Southeast Agricultural Research and Extension Center, which monitors that state’s hemp growers.

That includes 75 percent of the hemp grown for CBD oil, the non-psychoactive compound derived from hemp and sometimes used in medical applications. The risk is lower for hemp grown for fiber and grain.

Even in North Carolina, no stranger to growing leafy crops, just half of the hemp farmers are under purchase contracts, and about half the crop is expected to be stored at great expense because it can’t be sold this season, according to a Southeast harvest preview published on Oct. 11 by Hemp Industry Daily, a trade magazine. Read more