Restrictive housing prevalent in N.C. prisons

The study, conducted in 2015 and 2016, defined “restrictive housing” as a housing unit separating incarcerated people from the rest of the prison population with restricted privileges, like out-of-cell time.

To assist DPS in reducing the use of restrictive housing, the Vera Institute received funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Elena Vanko, program associate at Vera, said DPS made progress by ending the use of restrictive housing for prisoners under 18 — and by implementing other measures to reduce the use of restrictive housing.

“They also created the step down program to help people in long-term segregation step down into the regular prison population,” Vanko said. “Our hope is that these findings help them further understand their system and implement their reforms.”

Vanko said DPS has also set up four Therapeutic Diversion Units as alternatives to traditional restrictive housing for people with greater mental health needs.

Incarcerated people with mental health needs were overrepresented in populations in restrictive housing, along with racial minorities and young adults.

Those with mental health needs often find it hard to comply with rules or existing prison structures, especially if their needs are unrecognized or untreated, Vanko said.

Deborah Weissman, a UNC law professor and faculty advisor for the 2014 study “Solitary Confinement as Torture,” said the prison system often ends up being the default mental health system for those without resources.

“A lot of people are in prison because they have mental health problems,” she said. “Prison is dehumanizing and for some of those people who enter the system are going to have a problem acting in accordance with social norms.”

The study found restrictive housing was used frequently as a disciplinary measure, even for low-level infractions.

“We over incarcerate, we over punish, we react to matters that are disproportionate to the events,” Weissman said.

Vanko said DPS is specifically working on addressing this situation.

“So that’s a really critical area for them to work on and it’s something they are definitely working on improving,” she said.

DPS is also looking at increasing measures meant to help those coming out of extended stays in restrictive housing units reintegrate into the prison population, according to the study.

Vanko said it is hard to compare this data with data from other states.

“It is very hard to compare because every state is different in what they call restrictive housing, what conditions are like in there, how they keep their records,” she said.

The Vera Institute has worked with other states to reduce the use of restrictive housing as well, Vanko said.

“I think North Carolina is pretty similar to what we’ve seen in other states,” she said. “That’s part of why we’re trying to see what’s going on in other states and what’s working and what isn’t. Getting all the states to get on board and make these reforms is the goal.”

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