RALEIGH – Four people who have spent years locked in solitary confinement in North Carolina prisons today filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the state’s use of the practice – in which people are held in cells no bigger than a parking space for 22 to 24 hours a day with little to no human contact – as a violation of the state constitution’s ban on cruel or unusual punishment.
Approximately 3,000 people were being held in some form of solitary confinement in North Carolina as of July 2019, hundreds for periods of months or years.
North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services (NCPLS) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina filed the legal challenge in state Superior Court on behalf of the four men and others being held in solitary confinement.
“Solitary confinement is a cruel and unnecessary practice that destroys people’s mental health, degrades their human dignity, and makes prison conditions all the more dangerous,” said Dan Siegel, a staff attorney for NCPLS. “Prison officials should use solitary confinement only as a last resort, and for the shortest duration possible, when there is no other option to address an imminent safety threat. But today in North Carolina, thousands of people are confined in tiny cells and denied human contact, sunlight, and fresh air for 22 to 24 hours a day for offenses as minor as using profanity. These policies must end.”
One of the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit, Rocky Dewalt, suffers from several mental health disorders and routinely experiences anxiety, depression, paranoia, and suicidal thoughts. He has been held in solitary confinement for more than 12 years.
Another plaintiff, Robert Parham, is a wheelchair-bound 58-year-old with a long history of mental and physical health problems. He has spent nearly a decade in solitary confinement.
The third, Anthony McGree, has lived in solitary confinement since April 2018 and attempted suicide several times to escape his near-constant psychological pain.
The fourth, Shawn Bonnett, was recently placed back in solitary for non-violent rules infractions after previously spending nearly a decade in solitary confinement.
“There is a clear medical consensus that solitary confinement is virtually guaranteed to inflict serious pain and create or exacerbate mental illness, doing nothing to rehabilitate people or prepare them to reenter society,” said Irena Como, Acting Legal Director for the ACLU of North Carolina. “Instead, they come out sick, angry, socially withdrawn, and even more likely to end up back in prison. The longer that people are subjected to solitary confinement’s unnecessary cruelty, the more severe its consequences become.”
The lawsuit documents how many prison rule infractions that do not involve violence can lead to solitary confinement. People can face 20 to 30 days in isolation for possessing a cell phone, lying to prison staff, masturbating, stealing canteen inventory, or refusing a drug test.
A study published this month in a journal of the American Medical Association found that people released from North Carolina prisons who had spent any time in solitary confinement were 24% more likely to die in the first year after their release, especially from suicide, but also homicide and opioid overdose. The article was coauthored by the state prison system’s behavioral health director.
In 2015, a coalition of human rights groups, including the two who filed today’s lawsuit, asked the U.S. Department of Justice to open an investigation into the use of solitary confinement in North Carolina prisons. The groups highlighted several people who died after being held in solitary confinement in North Carolina, including Michael Anthony Kerr, a 53-year-old former Army sergeant diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, who died of dehydration in March 2014 after spending 35 days in solitary confinement.
The lawsuit outlines how other states across the country have implemented reforms to drastically curtail the use of solitary confinement. Colorado, for example, experienced the lowest number of assaults against prison staff in a decade after reducing the number of people held in solitary by 85%, banning its use for more than 15 consecutive days, and expanding access to mental health care.