“It is meant to break your spirit”: Groups call for end to solitary confinement in NC prisons

A solitary cell in an NC prison. Image: Disability Rights NC

Kerwin Pittman spent a total of 1,000 days alone, living in a drab prison cell the size of a small bathroom. He slept on a slab. His sink was connected to the toilet and lacked hot water. 

When Pittman was allowed to leave his cell to go outside – an hour per day – he went inside a cage under full wrist and ankle restraints. He compared the experience to being in a dog kennel for the guards to observe.

“Solitary confinement is not meant, by no means, to rehabilitate you,” Pittman said at a recent event, held in Raleigh on U.N. International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, June 26.

Pittman had been convicted of conspiracy to commit murder. He served 11 and half years in North Carolina prisons, roughly a third of which were spent in solitary confinement, including a solid year at Scotland Correctional Institution in Laurinburg. He was released from prison about five years ago.

“It is meant to break your spirit. Solitary confinement is for those who they consider the worst of the worst and those who are unbreakable. And they will leave you back there and not care.”

The event’s goal was to show the connection between the mistreatment of Black and brown incarcerated people in North Carolina and the all-Muslim Black and brown individuals being held in the United States’ notorious Guantanamo Bay detention center. Attendees also called for an end to torture and solitary confinement in North Carolina prisons.

Pittman is the director of policy and program of Emancipate NC, a nonprofit combating structural racism in the criminal justice system. He recalled his vent mate — how incarcerated people in solitary confinement communicate — whom he called TK, whose last name was Watkins.

Pittman said after about two months in solitary confinement, Watkins’s mental state deteriorated. He would also smell and hear that Watkins was playing with his feces; prison guards allegedly pepper-sprayed and hogtied Watkins and threw him into a shower. 

He would also hear Watkins cry.

“Just seeing him deteriorated in all honesty – if you weren’t strong would break your soul,” Pittman said. 

“In those spaces, I will never forget hearing grown men cry. One of the things that remain etched in my memory is hearing a grown man cry in his cell. And the echoes of his cries off of the walls coming from under the doors and coming under my door and into my cell.”

While Pittman managed to stay sane by reading, working out and being vigilant toward the guards, he felt someone like Watkins did not get the proper help – mentally or physically. 

Pittman said the mass incarceration system fails to help individuals mentally or socially. He also emphasized building more mental health institutions instead of prisons, which he said is the correct way to combat issues instead of torture and solitary confinement. 

Along with his work in social justice, Pittman also sits on the state Re-entry Council Collaborative and the NC Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, both created by Gov. Roy Cooper.

But even with Gov. Cooper’s initiatives, more than half of the prison population in the state is Black. In addition, 80% of those in the most severe level of solitary confinement are people of color.

Thus far, Gov. Cooper and NC Attorney General Josh Stein have made no effort to end solitary confinement. Nor has the General Assembly created legislation to end it.

Author and scholar Maha Hilal (LinkedIn)

Maha Hilal, who has a doctorate in Philosophy Justice, Law and Criminology, is a researcher and writer on institutionalized Islamaphobia, also spoke at the event. She is the author of the book “Innocent Until Proven Muslim: Islamaphbioa and, the War on Terror, and the Muslim Experience Since 9/11.”

Hilal said that the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba – which began operation post-9/11 by the United States under President George W. Bush – greatly influences other mainland U.S. prisons affecting Black and Muslim populations.

“At Guantanamo, there is a harsh logical reality in the United States that is built on white supremacy, anti-blackness and deep anti-blackness,” Hilal said. “Black Americans are who the mass incarceration system started to target as a legacy of slavery, xenophobia and Islamaphobia and many other systems of oppression.”

Hilal also said these torture practices and prejudice had existed long before 9/11.

“Torture in the United States and by the United States is systematic,” she said. 

“It predates 9/11, it predates the war on terror, yet the discourse continues to tell us that torture is not a practice of the U.S.”

North Carolina also hosts a CIA aviation company based in Smithfield named Aero Contractors. 

According to a 2018 report by The North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture, the company has allegedly flown at least 49 Black and brown individuals, all Muslim, to so-called rendition sites, where they were later kidnapped and tortured. 

Human rights activists have called on the state to investigate Aero Contractors since 2005 when The New York Times broke the news of the company’s working with the CIA’s torture program. 

Gov. Cooper has been aware of the matter since at least 2007 when he was the state’s attorney general, but there has not been any public acknowledgment by government officials since then.

With this, Hilal said that the U.S. prison system uses Muslims to justify violence against incarcerated people. 

“Muslims have been constructed as inherently evil, inherently barbaric, and inherently terroristic and inexplicably angry,” she said.

“What purpose do these constructions serve the United States? Their purpose is to say that we cannot reason with these individuals. Therefore, brute force is the only possible intervention. So whether we are talking about torture, surveillance, or murder, that logic applies across the board.”

James Burrell is a summer journalism fellow with NC Policy Watch, sponsored by the States Newsroom. He graduated from NC Central University, where he co-edited the student newspaper, the Campus Echo.

Medical marijuana advances to NC House after historic vote in Senate

Photo: Getty Images

On Monday, the state Senate passed a historic bill that would allow patients to receive medical marijuana through a trained physician for medical conditions such as cancer, PTSD, epilepsy and more.

The bill would also remove the state-level criminal penalties for medical use, cultivation and distribution of marijuana. The measure would not change civil or criminal laws governing marijuana for nonmedical use. 

Filed last year by the Senate as the “North Carolina Compassionate Care Act,” Senate Bill 711 passed its final required reading with a 36-7 vote. Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick) spoke about the benefits of medical marijuana and its necessity during the second reading last Thursday, which passed after having a floor debate.

“It is our duty as lawmakers to pass legislation that helps people who need our help,” said Rabon, a primary sponsor of the bill and a cancer survivor who has worked on the legislation for five years. “It is not going to make them ashamed or reluctant to seek help if it is recommended to them by their physician.”

Another primary sponsor of the bill, Sen. Micheal V. Lee (R-New Hanover), also acknowledged that patients might need treatment that only marijuana can provide. “The patient gets to pray that this works because a lot of times nothing else does,” Lee said.

Though the bill has bipartisan support, opponents such as Sen. Jim Burgin (R-Harnett) remains unconvinced. “Marijuana does not treat the ailment; it only masks the symptoms,” Burgin said.

Sen. Julie Mayfield (D-Buncombe) requested to amend the bill for in-state growers and retailers to participate in the medical marijuana trade. “This is a bill that the public clearly wants, but it is not quite there yet,” said Mayfield who ultimately voted against it.

The bill outlines limited and rigorous requirements – for individuals, physicians and suppliers – which the Department of Health and Human Services would enforce. The physician would also have to note whether benefits of smoking or consuming marijuana outweigh the risks for the patient. 

According to the bill, requirements for patients would include having a “debilitating medical condition.” These include cancer, PTSD, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, ALS, Crohn’s disease, sickle cell anemia and other health conditions.

Patients would need to have shown diagnosis for a condition and a written certification from their physician. Afterward, they apply to DHHS to receive a registry identification card for consuming medical marijuana.  The card would go to a designated caregiver of the qualified patient. The caregiver – who needs to be at least age 21 – would assist the patient with the medical use of marijuana. Patients can have two designated caregivers, and caregivers can serve two qualified patients.

Both the qualified patient and the designated caregiver would be required to carry their registry indentation card when possessing medical marijuana or marijuana-infused products.

Duke University medical professor David Casarett, a supporter of medical marijuana, said that the drug is not for everybody or every condition. “I think we go into this with the honest assessment that it’s not a wonder drug, it’s not a panacea, it’s not a cure-all and it has some risks,” Casarett told WUNC. “As long as we go into it with eyes wide open and an honest assessment of risks and potential benefits, I think it is the right time.”

The bill will now go to the House. However, it is uncertain whether that chamber will pass the measure or wait until the next legislative session. In that case, the bill’s chances of becoming law would be delayed until possibly next year. 

Currently, North Carolina allows the use of industrial hemp-based products that contain 0.3 percent THC – the chemical that makes someone high.

If the bill becomes law, citizens would be able to consume a higher amount of THC, like in regular marijuana.

As of May 27, 37 states and the District of Columbia have removed state-level criminal penalties for medical marijuana, including Virginia, Alabama and New York. 

James Burrell is a summer journalism fellow with NC Policy Watch, sponsored by the States Newsroom. He graduated from NC Central University, where he co-edited the student newspaper, the Campus Echo.

New bill would provide schools with free feminine hygiene products, exempt them from state sales tax

A new bill would exempt sales tax on feminine hygiene products and make them free in public schools through a recurring grant program, Rep. Julie von Haefen, the primary bill sponsor said Tuesday.

At a press conference at the General Assembly, students and legislators explained how the measure could help families afford feminine hygiene products, which can be expensive.

“It is a monthly expense that many individuals and families simply can not afford,” said von Haefen (D-Wake) at the press conference. “Access to menstrual products is a factor that impacts students well being, attendance and performance. For this reason, we worked hard in a bipartisan effort to ensure that the budget had funding for The Feminine Hygiene Products Grant Program.”

The funds would be directed to public schools to purchase the products.

Feminine hygiene products will include tampons, panty liners, menstrual cups, sanitary napkins and other similar products. Grooming and hygiene products such as cleaning products, soaps, shampoos, toothpaste, etc. are not included in the bill.

Von Haefen also mentioned how the rise of inflation is a key factor in the affordability of feminine hygiene products. The products are considered luxury items, and subject to a 4.75% state sales tax, too.

“This tax has a disproportionate impact on low-income menstruators and can lead to having to choose one essential over another,” said one Cary high school student. “For low-income students, in particular, a lack of access in affordability of [menstrual] products can make a difference in their education.”

Rep. Julie von Haefen (D-Wake)

Currently, states such as Virginia, New York and California have already passed legislation requiring schools to provide free menstrual products for students. More than 20 states have also ended the sales tax on feminine hygiene products – some include Vermont and Maine.

Students and advocates also mentioned the safety measures the bill will give those who need the products – menstruates have had to resort to using toilet paper and rags to manage feminine hygiene – such measures can be unsanitary.

Some students have also had to go to their school’s front office to receive menstrual products or leave early altogether – hindering attendance and learning.

The Menstrual Equity for All bill will be the next step of what the assembly had previously passed for local schools and diaper banks to reduce menstrual poverty and increase equity for families who can not afford feminine hygiene products.

The End Menstrual Poverty Act, passed last year as part of the state budget, let public school units apply for grants of up to $5,000 to purchase feminine hygiene products. Grants were awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

Money ran out in less than a week according to The Department of Public Instruction, which sent a report to the legislature. 

The $250,000 appropriation was claimed in less than a week, and fewer than half of the 134 applications were funded. The legislature made the money available only for the 2021-2022 fiscal year.

Funding for the grant program in the new bill will be appropriated from the General Fund to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) with $500,000 in recurring funds going into the next fiscal year. 

Along with Rep. Haefen, the bill is sponsored by Rep. Allison Dahle (D-Wake), Sen. Natalie Murdock (D-Durham), and Sen. Natasha Marcus (D-Mecklenburg). Sen. Kathy Harrington (R-Gaston) helped appropriate the funding for the bill, with Sen. Julie Mayfield (D-Buncombe) assisting with last year’s funding.

James Burrell is a summer journalism fellow with NC Policy Watch, sponsored by the States Newsroom. He graduated from NC Central University, where he co-edited the student newspaper, the Campus Echo.