New prisons study confirms harmful impacts of solitary confinement, value of mental health treatment and care

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

Advocates call for appropriations to fund essential reforms

In some ways, it seems kind of silly that we even had to conduct a study to confirm something so obvious, but in the modern world in which so many basic facts underlying public policy are constantly up for debate, new research conducted by the state prison system is welcome news. The finding: there’s a big payoff to providing treatment and care to incarcerated people with mental health disabilities. What’s more, the practice of using solitary confinement for such individuals is ineffective and harmful.

This is from a statement issued by a coalition of North Carolina mental health advocacy organizations, including Disability Rights NC, NAMI NC, the NC Psychiatric Association, the NC chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, and the NC Psychological Association:

…[the] study recently published in the American Journal of Preventative Health lays bare the harmful, too often deadly, effects of prison solitary confinement on people with mental health disabilities. The findings confirm what has been known for years – solitary confinement is harmful to people and results in life-long trauma, suicide and self-injurious behavior. According to the Study, care and treatment of people with mental illness in prison leads to safer prison environments for those who work and live in the prison as well as for our communities that will receive the more than 20,000 people who return every year. The Study confirms that care and treatment while in prison produce better outcomes for everyone.

The statement, which notes that advocates have been calling for years for such a study, also highlights the obvious conclusion that follows: the need for state lawmakers to appropriate funds to provide necessary services and end the barbaric practice of solitary confinement.

We advocated for the 2015 appropriation establishing Therapeutic Diversion Units in NC DPS after the tragic death of Mr. Michael Kerr, who died of dehydration while in full restraints in solitary confinement during a psychiatric crisis.

The Study confirms what has been known for years: our prisons will be safer and people will return to our communities healthier if prison mental health treatment is fully funded. “This study provides clear evidence that North Carolina should invest more in best practices like TDUs and funding behavioral health staff including social workers that result in better outcomes for North Carolinians,” said Valerie Arendt, Executive Direction of NASW-NC.

“We will continue to advocate for more funding for services and staff in North Carolina prisons, and urge the end of the dangerous and harmful practice of long-term solitary confinement,” said Susan H. Pollitt, Supervising Attorney with DRNC.

Click:

  • here to read the full press statement,
  • here to read a release from the Department of Public Safety,
  • here to explore the study, and
  • here to read powerful op-ed by Disability Rights NC attorney Luke Woollard that describes the human torture that is solitary confinement.

Read it here: Johnston County’s new anti-Critical Race Theory policy is an absurd mishmash

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The ongoing national campaign to stoke the fears of white voters over issues of race and public education hit a new low in Johnston County recently when the local school board adopted a new policy that purports to tell teachers how they should instruct students in American history. As Policy Watch education reporter Greg Childress reported yesterday, the move came in response to a threat by county commissioners to withhold just under $8 million in funding.

Supporters of the new policy say it prohibits the teaching of an obscure university-level discipline known as Critical Race Theory.

Dale Lands, founder of Citizen Advocates for Accountable Government, a group that has opposed CRT and the district’s mask mandate, said the policy revision is intended to ensure students are taught “regular history, regular math.” 

A closer look at the actual language of the policy, however, reveals it to be an illogical mishmash that will only serve to confuse and intimidate educators, administrators, parents, and students. Consider the following language from the policy:

Balance & Fairness

When discussing a controversial topic, which may arise out of the North Carolina Standard Course of Study, the staff member shall remain neutral and present the information without bias. These topics must include multiple and varied viewpoints, in an effort to stimulate thought, without persuasion or outside pressure, among students. (Policy 5170, 2205)\

All people deserve full credit and recognition for their struggles and accomplishments throughout United States history.  The United States foundational documents shall not be undermined. No employee of Johnston County Schools will make any attempt to discredit the efforts made by all people using foundational documents for reform.

No fictional accounts or narratives shall be used to invalidate actual objective historical events.  All people who contributed to American Society will be recognized and presented as reformists, innovators and heroes to our culture. (Emphasis supplied).

Setting aside the fact that the next-to-last sentence might have a salutary effect on our study of the 2020 election, what in the world — particularly that last sentence — does this mean? One supposes that the intent is to put up a big roadblock to those who might try to inform students that many of the nation’s founders — Washington, Jefferson, et al. — enslaved other human beings, but that’s far from the only implication or way to read it.

How about Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee? Did they “contribute” to American society? Davis was a U.S. Senator and Lee served honorably for years in the U.S. Army. Does this mean that they can only be “recognized and presented as reformists, innovators and heroes to our culture.”

How about Aaron Burr? He served as Vice President of the nation, so does that mean the unpleasantness with Alexander Hamilton if off-limits?

FDR was indisputably one the nation’s great presidents, but he also allowed the internment of American citizens based on hideous racial stereotypes.

Richard Nixon built international bridges but was forced to resign from office because of Constitution-endangering corruption.

The list, of course, is endless. There are thousands of important historical figures who “contributed” to society at one time or another in their lives, but who were also responsible for many distinctly unheroic, backward-looking and destructive acts.

The bottom line: American history is an enormously complex and important subject full of complicated human beings. And as is almost always the case when politicians try to micromanage subjects in which they have no expertise, the efforts in Johnston County to censor and whitewash that history will ill-serve both our children and the truth.

This fundraiser invitation should disqualify Justice Phil Berger, Jr. from numerous Supreme Court cases

Be sure to check out this morning’s lead editorial in Raleigh’s News & Observer about the extraordinarily blatant (if not at all surprising) conflict of interest that is evidenced by the political fundraiser invitation that appears to the left.

As the editorial notes, Supreme Court Justice Phil Berger, Jr. — the son of longtime state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, Sr. — has allowed his name to be used on a fundraiser for Republican state Representative Jimmy Dixon. Berger, Jr. is even listed as a “special guest” alongside House Speaker Tim Moore (one of the defendants in a case Berger, Jr. has been asked to rule on) and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson (a far right politician who has gained international attention for uttering hateful and anti-Semitic slurs).

You can read more about the need for Berger, Jr. and his colleague, Justice Tamara Barringer, to recuse themselves from an important case in which Berger’s father and Speaker Moore are the named defendants here and here.

This is from the editorial:

Apparently Justice Berger’s response to concerns about whether he can be impartial is to thumb his nose at the worriers. He’ll do what he pleases, which is help raise funds for the legislative leadership whose actions have repeatedly been challenged in the courts….

With the ending of public financing for judicial elections, judicial candidates must raise funds for themselves and they run under partisan labels. But they still have a special responsibility to be – and to appear to be – impartial. That special responsibility means not being a “special guest” at a lawmaker’s campaign fundraiser.

Clearly there is a need for a better way to respond to justices who flaunt their partiality. The court is right to consider whether it has the authority and can construct a method to disqualify Justice Berger in this case.

The bottom line: The state Supreme Court renders all sorts of important decisions that deal with the acts of state lawmakers and while it’s true that North Carolina has — unfortunately — made its judicial elections partisan, it simply must remain unacceptable for judges to become directly involved in supporting the election of officials whose actions they will inevitably be called upon to sit in judgement. Justice Berger’s action in this matter is unethical and ought to be the subject of an investigation and potential sanction.

Editorial: NC must improve its last-in-the-nation showing in a very important category

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As reported in this space earlier this month, the latest assessment of the “Best and Worst States to Work in America 2021” from analysts at the global anti-poverty nonprofit, OxFam place North Carolina dead last in the U.S.

Over the weekend, the Winston-Salem Journal and Greensboro News & Record twins featured an excellent editorial that lamented this sorry state of affairs and called on state Republicans to stop blaming the messenger (a spokesperson for Senate leader Phil Berger called OxFam a “left-wing advocacy group”) and get to work making our state a better place to work. As the editorial rightfully puts it in response to the attacks on OxFam:

But facts are neither partisan nor ideological. And, as they say, the proof is in the pudding:

  • North Carolina’s minimum wage is a paltry $7.25 an hour, which is only 23.2% of what it takes to support a family of four. And which does not apply to farmworkers.
  • By state law local governments cannot set higher minimum wages.
  • No laws in North Carolina protect workers from sexual harassment.
  • There is no paid family leave in North Carolina.
  • There are no state laws against sexual harassment.
  • And if you should lose your job here, North Carolina offers some of the stingiest and cruelest unemployment benefits in the nation.

After detailing the many outrageous failings of the state Department of Labor under two decades of do-noting leadership from former Commissioner Cherie Berry, the editorial continues:

There is a shortage of nurses, teachers, school bus drivers, cafeteria workers, construction workers, restaurant workers, even after federal COVID unemployment benefits were cut.

Call them lazy if you will, but we’re guessing that most workers want what all of us want: a decent wage for a decent day’s work under safe conditions.

So, if we were legislators, we’d reconsider blaming the messenger….

…The upshot: Like it or not, Oxfam has a point.

North Carolina can do better. And North Carolina should do better.

Click here to review the OxFam report and here or here to read the full editorial.