A little more than two years ago, Timothy E. Helms, who at that point had spent 1,473 daysfour yearsin solitary confinement in the Alexander Correctional Institute, set fire to his cell.

Helms, a mentally ill inmate with an IQ of 79, told doctors guards beat him after he set the fire, according to a report in The News & Observer.

“The blunt-force trauma Helms suffered while in custody … caused extensive bleeding in his brain, leaving him bedridden and unable to walk,” the article stated. “Though he showed some signs of improvement in the past two years, he could still hardly speak or perform such mundane tasks as feeding himself.”

Last year, Helms, 49, died as a result of those injuries. No prison guards were charged in Helms’ case, and N.C. Department of Correction Secretary Alvin W. Keller Jr. suggested Helms’ head injuries may have resulted from a fall.

In the nine-plus years since the opening of the Guantánamo prison, U.S. torture policy is still supported by the majority of Americans, and the roots of torture run deep in U.S. culture. Although there is not definitive government data on the number of people in solitary confinement, there are estimates that as many as 80,000 inmates in U.S. prisons spend years in solitary confinement, a practice the United Nations and human rights groups call a form of torture.

While Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq have grabbed international headlines because of George W. Bush’s (and now Barack Obama’s) torture policy, North Carolinians need go no farther than Raleigh’s Central Prison to find the practice of torture, said N.C. Prisoner Legal Services lawyer Phil Griffin, at last week’s Duke Divinity School conference, “Toward a Moral Consensus Against Torture.”

Griffin is part of a six-lawyer team that advocates for the more than 40,000 state inmates who may have a grievance against the prison system. Central is one of several state prisons that maintain high-security isolation units that hold individual inmates in small cells for years on end.

Griffin noted that Richmond’s U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has held solitary confinement “to be specifically not cruel and unusual punishment.”

The N.C. Department of Correction website states: “Polk’s high security maximum control unit (HCON) opened in October 1998. This high security concept in correctional design is intended for the state’s most violent and assaultive offenders. The ‘Supermax’ (HCON) unit in Butner was the first of its kind in North Carolina.”

Griffin disputes those claims, saying that many of those on Polk’s HCON unit are simply mentally ill and/ or developmentally disabled. His 31-year-old client, with an IQ of 75 and a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, “has had over 40 admissions to Inpatient Mental Health for self injurious behaviors and secondary gain,” a DOC mental health report stated.

According to the assessment, the inmate, whom Griffin identifies as Michael, told a DOC staff psychologist in an interview, “I am doing all right, but I like to cut myself.” Yet Griffin’s lawsuit to have Michael removed from segregation was dismissed in federal court “on the basis that Michael is not being harmed by what’s happening to him,” Griffin said, despite the fact that Michael “takes cutting himself to be a normal thing.”

Michael has since been transferred from Polk to another maximum-control isolation unit at Central Prison.

Inmates with mental illness or cognitive deficits “are unable to conform their behavior to any kind of prison life,” Griffin said, and as such are likely to end up in long-term, controlled segregation, which deteriorates people’s mental health.

“It’s important to the topic of this conference because it is torture (and) frankly most people don’t care, and that’s the most frustrating thing in my job.

“The psychologist found that Michael was not being harmed by having been kept from any sort of social interaction with other human beings for over 10 years, and the court held that his right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment was not being violated,” Griffin said. “It is to me an inexplicable blindness to deliberate cruelty.”

Panelist Amy Fettig, of the ACLU National Prison Project, said solitary confinement represents “the prison within a prison, the people who are hardest to reach, hardest to help and hardest to protect. There’s absolutely no question that this practice is damaging for the human mind and body.”

Like Griffin, Fettig can’t figure out why the public does not care about the plight of those held in solitary confinement. “We have a serious mercy deficit when we enact punishment to the maximum possible extent,” she said. “On any given day in this country, tens of thousands of people are subject to long-term isolation,” where inmates “will be subject to enforced idleness, extreme social isolation … and you will also not have access to human touch,” Fettig said. “The only people who might touch you are the guards when they are cuffing you or when they are beating you.”

Panelist Amey Victoria Adkins, a Duke Divinity student, said race plays a role in who ends up in prison and who ends up in “the hole.”

According to N.C. Department of Correction data, of the 92 people in Polk’s HCON unitsolitary confinement75 are black. Twelve are white, three are Hispanic, one is Asian and one is Native American.

“Solitary confinement is an inversion of the auction block,” Adkins said. “On the auction block, black bodies are a problem. They are that which is not, that which is negative. They are to be avoided. They are a threat. They are different. They are less than human. They are this because white bodies are not this.”