Veteran NC attorney: Abolition of solitary confinement is long overdue

[Cross-posted from the website of the advocacy group Emancipate NC.]

If it wasn’t heartbreaking, it would be funny.

Two weeks ago, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, through its unironically named research unit, the “Innovation Institute,” concluded:

“…there is a body of research that indicates just how adverse restrictive housing can be for people who suffer from a mental health disorder. We now have data, which came from our own offender populations, to guide us as we determine best practices.”

No shit. The damage of solitary confinement has been common knowledge among advocates, mental health professionals, human rights scholars, and anyone with common sense for more than a decade. As Jeffrey Cobb stated in his interview with Emancipate NC Advocate Cierra Cobb last week: “There shouldn’t be no solitary confinement, because you don’t do that shit to humans.”

And NCDPS has been aware of this “body of research” for years, as well.

In 2014 — seven years ago, and three years after UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, opined that solitary confinement amounted to torture — I, then an attorney at North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, collaborated with the UNC School of Law Immigration & Human Rights Clinic students and Professor Deborah Weissman to author a report entitled, “Solitary in Confinement as Torture.” This report was based on North Carolina-specific data, including public records obtained directly from NCDPS and its own incarcerated population. The report stated:

Studies demonstrate that isolation can cause people to become more impulsive as a result of the change in brain functionality attributed to isolation. When placed in solitary confinement, many [people] meet their breaking point. They cannot mentally handle the conditions and end up engaging in self-mutilation and/or attempting suicide. … It is a standard psychiatric concept; if you put people in isolation, they will go insane.

NCDPS was aware of this research and this report.

NCDPS was also aware of United States Congressional hearings about the adverse effects of solitary confinement on mental health in 2012. They were aware that those hearings picked up again a couple years later; I offered testimony from the deposition of Jerry Williams in Williams v. Wellman, a 2013 federal lawsuit against NCDPS. I filed the lawsuit after Jerry had spent over 70,000 hours locked up due to disciplinary action for behavioral manifestations of his schizophrenia. Jerry testified in that deposition, in a room inside Central Prison with NCDPS officials and attorneys present:

Question:    What does it feel like to be locked inside a cell on Unit One [the solitary confinement unit at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina]?

Answer:      The first time you get locked up, it about drive you wild.  You want to do anything to get out, even kill yourself.

Question:    And how long have you been in segregation now?

Answer:      Eight years. . . .

Question:    What do you do all day in the cell?

Answer:      Best thing I know to do, walk back and forth on the floor, pace the floor.

Question:    Do you think you’ll ever get off lock-up [solitary confinement]?

Answer:      If I can stop getting write-ups, I believe I can make it.  But I just [have to] stop having to kick on the door or keep calling and begging for them to come and see me and talk to me.  I’ve got to leave all that alone.  That’s the only way to get off lock-up.  You don’t bother no staff or inmates.  You just stay quiet, don’t be asking nobody for nothing.  Don’t never even hear you talk.

NCDPS was aware of the “research” over the course of multiple other lawsuits, from every possible angle and theory of law, with various nonprofit organizations paying thousands of dollars on correctional and psychological expert witnesses to “prove” what all of us always knew was true.  Read more