The ACLU of North Carolina and NC Prisoner Legal Services filed a class-action lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court on Wednesday on behalf of four prisoners who have spent lengthy stretches—some more than a decade—in solitary confinement with little-to-no human interaction.
These conditions, the lawsuit alleges, constitute cruel and unusual punishment that violates that state constitution.
“[The Department of Public Safety’s] policies and practices do not afford the basic human necessities of environmental stimulation and meaningful human contact,” the complaint argues. “As a result, people in solitary confinement—both with and without preexisting mental illness—face substantial risks of serious psychological and physiological harm.”
When prisoners are in so-called restricted housing, they typically spend at least twenty-two hours a day alone in a room the size of a parking space, the lawsuit says, and have minimal contact with other people. They eat alone, “just a few feet away from where they urinate and defecate,” the complaint continues. “Opportunities for job training, education, group recreation, and communal religious observance are minimal or nonexistent.”
A study released this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association that analyzes more than 229,000 people released from North Carolina prisons from 2000 to 2015 found that “individuals who spent any time in restrictive housing were 24 percent more likely to die in the first year after release, especially from suicide (78 percent more likely) and homicide (54 percent more likely); they were also 127 percent more likely to die of an opioid overdose in the first two weeks after release.”
The adverse effects of solitary confinement have been known at least 130 years, the lawsuit points out. In 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged that “a considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed.”
Since then, researchers have found that solitary confinement can lead to psychological and physical trauma, from hypersensitivity to light and sound to paranoia and suicidal ideation.
The lawsuit argues that it is a common practice for inmates to be placed in solitary confinement for minor infractions, such as swearing at a guard or masturbating. These periods of isolation can be “stacked”—inmates will enter solitary, leave, and immediately be sent back.
“While some people in Defendants’ custody commit serious infractions, they often do so as a result of severe, untreated mental illness,” the complaint says. “Prolonged solitary confinement will only exacerbate their illness, stunting rehabilitation and making prison conditions all the more dangerous.”
The named plaintiffs in the case are Rocky Dewalt, a convicted drug dealer who has been in prison in 2006 and has a projected release date in 2022; Robert Parham, who was sentenced in 2008 to life in prison for attempted murder and other crimes; Anthony McGee, who in 2015 was sentenced to twelve years in prison for armed robbery and other offenses; and Shawn Bonnett, who is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder committed in 1996. Three of the four lived at Raleigh Central Prison for part of their sentences. All experience some sort of mental illness, the lawsuit says.
Dewalt, the complaint says, “is the quintessential victim of prolonged solitary confinement. He lives with mental illness that makes concentration and impulse control especially difficult. This has often resulted in Mr. Dewalt committing prison rule infractions, which perpetuates his time in solitary confinement, which exacerbates his illness, which leads to more infractions and even more time in isolation.”
Parham, a “wheelchair-bound fifty-eight-year-old,” the lawsuit says, has impulse control disorder and antisocial personality disorder. “While he does not want to spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement, he worries that after a decade of isolation, he will never be able to adjust to life in the regular population.”
McGee, the lawsuit says, “requested protective custody because he feared that gang members were trying to kill him.” But prison staff refused and ordered him to rejoin the general population. When he resisted, the guards charged him with refusing an order and placed him in restrictive housing in May 2018. In January 2019, “prison staff charged Mr. McGee with engaging in gang-related activity due to a swastika drawn on his cell wall. Mr. McGee denied the charge, but prison staff found him guilty,” the lawsuit says. He received six months in restricted housing.
Bonnett served nearly his first ten years in prison in solitary and went back after infractions for possessing Black Panthers literature and a cell phone, the lawsuit says.
Since the case is a class-action suit, it could potentially affect the more than thirty-five thousand current and all future incarcerated people in North Carolina. The lawsuit asks the court to order the Department of Public Safety to “formulate and implement new policies and practices that comply with the state Constitution.”
In 2016, North Carolina DPS eliminated the use of solitary confinement for juveniles at the state level.
Contact editorial assistant Sara Pequeño at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.