Lawsuit challenges state's use of solitary confinement

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A prisoner who suffers from several mental health disorders and has been held in solitary confinement for more than 12 years is one of four who filed a class-action lawsuit against the state of North Carolina on Wednesday, saying the treatment violates the state constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina said in a news release that it and North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services sued on behalf of the four men and others held in cells described as no bigger than a parking space for 22 to 24 hours a day.

"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," Dan Siegel, a staff attorney for NCPLS, said in the news release. "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."

The groups estimate that about 3,000 people were held in some form of solitary confinement in North Carolina as of July, including hundreds held for months or years.

The two groups said the named plaintiffs are:

— Rocky Dewalt, who 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.

— Robert Parham, 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.

— Anthony McGree, who has attempted suicide several times to escape his near-constant psychological pain since being placed in solitary confinement in April 2018.

— Shawn Bonnett, who was recently placed back in solitary confinement for nonviolent 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 re-enter society," Irena Como, acting legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina, said in the news release. "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."

A spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety, which oversees the state prison system, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

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. Gary Junker, behavioral health director for DPS, co-authored the study, which said causes included suicide, homicide and opioid abuse.

North Carolina's commissioner of prisons said in a statement that DPS recognizes that reducing the use of solitary confinement -- or restrictive housing -- will improve prisoners' lives after they're released. But Commissioner Todd Ishee also said the study shows that while solitary confinement is associated with the rate of deaths of people after they're released from prison, it's not necessarily the cause of those deaths.

Human rights groups, including the two that filed this lawsuit, asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate North Carolina's use of solitary confinement. That request came after a 53-year-old former Army sergeant diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder died of dehydration died in 2014. Michael Anthony Kerr had spent 35 days in solitary confinement.

In 2015, the state agreed to pay $2.5 million to Kerr's estate.

Other states have curbed the use of solitary confinement without suffering ill effects, the lawsuit says. For example, it says assaults on employees at Colorado prisons dropped when the state reduced the use of solitary confinement and expanded access to mental health treatment.


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