North Carolina is torturing hundreds of prisoners. It must cease.

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

The cruel reality of solitary confinement should shock all caring and thinking people

One night in January 2014, two prison guards at the Colorado State Penitentiary led a man in handcuffs and an inmate’s uniform down the hall of the prison and dumped him in a solitary cell labeled “RFP Ad. Seg .: Administrative segregation, removed from the population. Solitary confinement. “His time in this cell would be spent destroying solitude; in a small box that is almost completely removed from human interaction.

He would not be alone when he saw the silent brutality of solitary confinement. Across the country, between 50,000 and 60,000 other people were in boxes like him, spending 22 to 24 hours of their day in a cell the size of a parking lot. They ate, slept and lived in concrete walls and a steel door, never more than a few feet from their toilet.

However, unlike the people I visit as a lawyer, this man only spent 20 hours in solitary confinement. He could do this because he is Rick Raemish and while he was in that cell in January 2014, he was the executive director of the Colorado Corrections Department. What was he doing in solitary confinement and why did he stay there for 20 hours? We will come back to these questions in a moment. First, let me tell you a little bit about solitary confinement in North Carolina.

The size of a parking lot?

In our state, thousands of people are tortured for months and years and subjected to a cruel and unusual punishment scheme that is disproportionately directed against people of color and people with intellectual disabilities. A few years ago I thought I had seen almost everything there was to see of North Carolina prisons and jails. From meeting handcuffed customers in empty cafeterias to shouting through bulletproof plastic trying to push documents through a slot in the wall.

But when I went to solitary confinement for the first time, all the prejudices I had had were gone. Although I’d heard and repeated the often-used description of these solitary cells as “the size of a parking lot” (a 6 by 8 foot cell is hard to imagine without a tape measure), the reality of solitary confinement quickly cuts this beauty. It’s hard to imagine a parking lot without also imagining a parking lot. A parking lot conjures up the image of an open, empty parking lot next to many other spaces on a large outdoor space, a space that is not restricted by walls or doors.

Single cells are the opposite. They are crowded, the dark closets

Rec room in solitary confinement about ten feet from the cells. Some men spend their free time tied up. Image: Disability Rights NC

Dimension of a parking space. Add to this room a massive steel door, an uncovered toilet that doubles as a sink, a single bed, and a small metal desk, all attached to cement walls. Throw in some harsh overhead lights and a translucent window the width of your hand. This is a single cell.

Put a person in this cell. No visits, no calls. No books, radio, television, or personal property of any kind to keep them busy. Put her there in this solitude for months, years. Only there for 22-24 hours a day. All day every day. I never know when to get out or what to do to get out. Shrink their lives to a walled parking lot, let them stay there, with the least amount of control they can imagine over their existence or fate. Make your world whatever comes through the slot in the locked door. This is solitary confinement.

Voices of loners

During that first visit there, other lawyers and I made rounds of the cell block, knocking on steel doors on each cell and yelling to find out how the men were being treated, what they needed. How can I describe the sheer torture I saw looking into these cells?

Despair can be heard in the voices behind the doors. You hear anger and frustration. You hear resignation and hopelessness. You can hear people asking for help, not just for themselves, but often for people in the cells around them. Sometimes you don’t hear anything and look in to see someone who has just stopped believing that someone could help them. And this silence can be justified; Try as we can, help doesn’t always make it behind the door. People have to deteriorate mentally for months and years without proper treatment and with no way out.

North Carolina lags behind other states

That brings us back to Rick Raemish. It took only 20 hours in this hell to cement Raemish’s belief that Colorado needed to rethink and limit how and for how long solitary confinement was used. Soon after, he led a successful campaign that ended the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days and moved almost all people with intellectual disabilities from solitary confinement to less restrictive environments. His personal experience in solitary confinement led him to completely reform its use as a disciplinary practice in Colorado.

Unfortunately, North Carolina trails well behind states like Colorado, with an average of nearly 3,000 people being held in solitary confinement at any one time. However, it is not too late to act. We now have an opportunity to address this dark reality of North Carolina prisons.

Recommendations of the Task Force on Racial Justice in the Criminal Justice System

On December 15, 2020, Governor Cooper’s Task Force on Racial Justice in the Criminal Justice System developed a set of recommendations that can lead the North Carolina judicial system into an era of increasing racial justice and fairness. This included recommending that the governor adopt the Mandela Rules, the United Nations Recommendations on the Use of Solitary Confinement, which prohibit the use of solitary confinement for people with intellectual disabilities, youth and other high-risk groups. These rules also define any time spent in solitary confinement for more than 15 days as torture.

In addition, the Task Force’s recommendations recognize that solitary confinement causes disproportionate harm to people of skin color. In North Carolina, there are far more people of color incarcerated than whites compared to the general population, and data published by DPS shows that people of color are far more likely to be in solitary confinement. In fact, the percentage of people of color who are serving solitary confinement is increasing as housing restrictions become more limited. In the heaviest housing estate, where the solitary confinement conditions are most draconian, 75-85% of the detainees are colored people. In addition, there is strong evidence that DPS policies and regulations allow for implicit racial prejudice that affects the disciplinary system in ways that result in a disproportionate number of colored people in long-term solitary confinement.

Summary of recommendations

  • End solitary confinement for:
  • People under 21 years of age
  • Pregnant women
  • People diagnosed with serious mental disabilities, disabilities, or substance use disorders
  • Indefinite periods of time
  • Periods of more than 15 consecutive days.

The Task Force’s recommendations are based on both science and morality and, if adopted, will stop the cruel damage being done to people and communities across North Carolina. Solitary confinement is recognized as torture by the scientific and international community, since under these conditions almost all people suffer from severe mental deterioration. You have a significant chance of developing conditions like paranoia and depression, some of them severe. Of particular concern is that many people who are placed in these cells are already diagnosed with a diagnosed intellectual disability, as people with intellectual disabilities are more likely to be placed in solitary confinement. Her disability has been criminalized.

“Beyond the prison walls”: dismal statistics

The cruelty and harm that occurs behind these thousands of steel doors echoes behind the prison walls. Most people who are long-term in solitary confinement are eventually released from prison and return to their communities.

  • Each year over 20,000 of the 30-35,000 detained in DPS facilities are released.
  • Many are released straight from solitary confinement with few resources and no opportunity to adapt to civilian life again.
  • In 2015, nearly 2,000 people were released straight from solitary confinement to the community.

The torture of solitary confinement continues to harm these people after they are released. Those who are in solitary confinement are:

  • They are more likely to die within the first year of their release than people who have spent their time in the regular population.
  • Increased risk of death from suicide, manslaughter, and opiate overdose.

As science and case studies have repeatedly shown, long-term solitary confinement prevents successful rehabilitation, and DPS cannot provide meaningful opportunities to participate in society after release if long-term solitary confinement continues to exist in North Carolina.

Hope for NC

With the recommendations of the NC Task Force, heads of state and lawmakers have taken a bold stance against the continuation of solitary confinement and the torture of the North Carolinians. However, the recommendations will have no effect without popular support. When Rick Raemish came out of this solitary cell after 20 hours, no further cell doors opened and no one was released. It took months of dedicated work, inspired by his experience, to end long-term solitary confinement in Colorado.

We as a state must have the will, common sense and steadfastness to achieve the goals set by the task force. And we have to exert pressure at all levels of the state government to move further towards a penal system that is free from solitary confinement. Political and cultural barriers as well as institutional inertia will resist any reform efforts to maintain the status quo. However, from the example of Colorado and several other states, we know that reforms are not only possible, but also beneficial and lead to healthier communities.

The people of North Carolina and their elected officials must work together to see and act upon the truth at the heart of this reform struggle: long-term solitary confinement is torture and must stop.

Luke Woollard is an attorney on the Disability Rights North Carolina prison and prison team, which first published this article.

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