Editor’s note: The ACLU of North Carolina is co-hosting an event entitled “Solitary confinement as Torture” this Friday April 10, 2015 at UNC Law School in Chapel Hill. Click here for more information.
Last year, North Carolinians were stunned and horrified by the death of Michael Anthony Kerr, who was found unresponsive in a van after being transferred between prisons following 35 days in solitary confinement. Kerr suffered from schizophrenia, and his cause of death was determined to be dehydration. Many questions remain about why he did not receive proper treatment.
Sadly, cases like Kerr’s are not isolated. An ever-growing body of research has confirmed that the use of solitary confinement – where inmates are placed in isolation for 22 to 24 hours a day, often in a small concrete box – exacts profound physical and psychological harms on those individuals.
Even worse, the reasons for placing an inmate in isolation are often entirely arbitrary, ranging from purported safety reasons or punishment for any type of offense to keeping them under control during investigations, transfers, or while awaiting assignments.
Solitary Confinement as Torture, a report released last year by the Human Rights Policy Seminar at the University of North Carolina School of Law, found that in recent years, as much as 10 percent of North Carolina’s prison population was placed in long-term solitary confinement at any given time – a number higher than many other states – often for such minor infractions as using profanity. At least 21 percent of North Carolina prisoners placed in solitary require some kind of mental health treatment, according to the report.
In most cases, privileges are severely restricted for those in solitary, and prisoners are often only permitted to leave their cells for one hour, three to five days a week to go to areas as small and controlled as their cell for recreation. When they do leave their cells, prisoners are often shackled and accompanied by multiple guards.
“It’s hell in here,” according to Michael, an inmate in his 20’s who spent 22 months in solitary confinement at Polk Correctional Institution in Butner, North Carolina, and was interviewed as part of the report. “We don’t see no sun, no fresh air, no outside recreation time.”
Another inmate interviewed, Malik, had been in isolation in Polk for over a decade. The report describes the concrete box Malik occupies for up to 24 hours a day, and his environment over which he has no control: the unforgiving light that stays on from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. that Malik is forbidden from trying to dim, even with a newspaper; the shower and toilet set to a rigid schedule controlled by officers outside; and worst of all, the “constant cacophony of shouting, banging, banter, and kicking” that can be heard from others in isolation at all hours of the day. Many get so desperate for human contact that they collect their own feces to throw at fellow prisoners if they can.
This type of treatment, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy recently told a Congressional subcommittee, “literally drives men mad.”
The UNC report was even more direct, concluding that keeping inmates confined in isolation is a cruel, inhuman and degrading form of punishment that amounts to torture and must no longer be used in the United States.
The impact on children is especially severe. Of the tens of thousands of children under the age of 18 who are incarcerated on any given day in the United States, many will experience some period of solitary confinement. More than half of the kids who commit suicide in juvenile facilities are in solitary confinement when they die.
Locking kids alone in a cell for 22-24 hours a day is child abuse – plain and simple. If you locked your kid in a closet, you’d go to jail. But the government locks kids in isolation every day. This treatment is inexcusable.
Thankfully, there are signs of reform in North Carolina. The state Department of Public Safety recently announced it is one of five departments across the country participating in a two-year initiative aimed at reducing use of solitary confinement and other forms of segregated prisoner housing. The initiative’s announcement pointed out that, in addition to being extremely damaging mentally and physically, keeping prisoners isolated is also costly: sometimes tens of thousands of dollars more per inmate than general population housing.
North Carolina’s officials should pursue reforms beyond this initiative and end the barbaric and inefficient practice of locking people in solitary confinement once and for all.
Mike Meno is the Communications Director of the ACLU of North Carolina.