The North Carolina Department of Public Safety is one of five state and local corrections departments selected by the Vera Institute of Justice to participate in a new initiative aimed at reducing their use of solitary confinement and other forms of segregated prisoner housing. Noting that “the human cost of the overuse and misuse” of solitary confinement “is far too high to not explore potential alternatives,” Vera officials say the initiative will develop new approaches to protecting inmate safety.The Vera Institute is a New York-headquartered research nonprofit dedicated to justice and safety.

Over the past three decades, departments of corrections have increasingly used segregated housing. Individuals are held in segregation for days, years, and in some instances, decades. Sometimes this requires being held in a windowless room 23 hours a day. A growing body of evidence suggests that segregation is counterproductive to public safety. The practice “literally drives men mad,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy recently told a House appropriations subcommittee. The United States has more inmates in isolation than any other democratic nation, according to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.

In March of last year, Michael Kerr, a mentally ill inmate who’d been housed in solitary confinement for roughly a month at Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville, N.C., died from dehydration while being transported to Raleigh’s Central Prison immediately afterward. His death, first reported by the INDY, prompted a federal investigation and the firings of nine Department of Public Safety workers.

According to one report cited by Vera officials, nearly every study of segregation’s effects conducted over the past 150 years has concluded that subjecting an individual to more than 10 days of involuntary segregation negatively impacts his or her emotional, cognitive, social, and physical well-being. Segregation is also expensive, as isolated housing can cost tens of thousands of dollars more per inmate than general population housing.

The two-year Vera initiative, conducted in partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance, is titled “Safe Alternatives to Segregation.” It aims to:

—provide technical assistance by developing, demonstrating, and evaluating alternatives to segregated housing;

—raise community awareness by developing an online resource center;

—hold annual conventions of representatives from the selected sites and an advisory council of expert practitioners and researchers;

—disseminate data-driven analyses of best and promising practices for use by jurisdictions nationwide.

“This is an opportunity for North Carolina to further examine and improve our restrictive housing policies and to develop new approaches to managing inmate behavior that will lead to positive outcomes,” said W. David Guice, commissioner of adult correction and juvenile justice for the N.C. Department of Public Safety, in a statement. “Intensive programming and mental health treatment will be key components to how we approach restrictive housing in the future.”

Joining the N.C. Department of Public Safety in the Vera initiative are state corrections departments in Nebraska and Oregon, and local departments in New York City and Middlesex County, New Jersey. Their selections followed an intense bidding process, according to Vera officials.