A lawsuit was filed Oct. 16 against the N.C. Department of Public Safety to challenge the state’s use of solitary confinement.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services filed the complaint in state Superior Court on behalf of four men who are being held in restrictive housing.
The lawsuit said due to the psychological and physiological harm that comes to inmates who are held in solitary confinement, the practice is a cruel punishment that violates the state constitution.
The plaintiffs are seeking to represent all current and future people held in DPS custody. They are suing for declaratory and injunctive relief, which means the court would say the practice is unconstitutional and reduce its use.
If successful, this lawsuit could dramatically change the practices involving solitary confinement in North Carolina.
The four plaintiffs claim to have been held in solitary confinement for extended periods of time, according to the lawsuit. Rocky Dewalt has spent more than 12 years in solitary confinement during the 13 years he has been incarcerated. He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, antisocial personality disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and chronic hypertension.
Robert Parham, who has been in DPS custody since 2008, has spent 10 years in solitary confinement. He has been diagnosed with depressive disorder, impulse control disorder and antisocial personality disorder. Shawn Bonnet has also spent nearly a decade in solitary confinement after entering DPS custody in 1996. The fourth plaintiff, Anthony McGee, has been held in solitary confinement for over a year.
Among the chief complaints made in the lawsuit are the standards by which prison staff decide to place a person in what DPS refers to as restrictive housing.
Mike Meno, communications director for the ACLU of North Carolina, said despite what people may think, the reasons for placing a person in solitary confinement can be a low threshold. He said the ACLU believes the practice should be drastically reduced and used only as a last resort to eliminate a safety threat.
The lawsuit said people have been placed in solitary confinement for infractions such as possessing a cell phone, disobeying an order, using profanity, masturbating or stealing canteen inventory. The lawsuit said these offenses and many other nonviolent offenses can result in 20-30 days in solitary confinement.
Another major concern brought up by the complaint is the effects that being in solitary confinement has on human beings. All four of the plaintiffs have been diagnosed with various mental and physical health problems. Meno said the health problems of inmates in solitary confinement was one of the biggest concerns for the ACLU and the NCPLS.
“All available evidence shows that solitary confinement extremely damaging to the people who are subjected to it,” Meno said. “It makes healthy people sick, and sick people sicker. It exacerbates and creates mental illness.”
John Bull, a communications officer from DPS prisons, said they could not comment on the litigation.
The lawsuit cited a study led by Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, assistant professor of social medicine at the UNC School of Medicine, that found individuals who were placed in solitary confinement were more likely to die in the first year after release. The most common causes were suicide, homicide and opioid overdoses.
Dan Siegel, an attorney from NCPLS, said North Carolina could use Colorado as an example of how to reduce the practice of solitary confinement without making prisons or communities any more dangerous.
The lawsuit explained how Colorado has banned the practice for more than 15 consecutive days, increased access to mental health treatment and banned juveniles and pregnant women from being placed in solitary confinement.
“When people are out of their cells, if they need to be restrained, they will be restrained,” Siegel said. “It’s just treating people more like human beings.”
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