By Rose Hoban
Juveniles under the age of 18 who are incarcerated in North Carolina prisons will no longer be subjected to solitary confinement starting this fall, prison commissioner David Guice announced last week.
In a statement accompanying a 16-page policy document, Guice wrote that “it is of paramount importance that, while these youth are in our care, their unique needs are accurately identified and addressed in the most effective way possible.”
The policy, which will be fully in place by Sept. 1, will apply to about 70 juvenile offenders currently housed at the Foothills Correctional Institution in Morganton. Those juveniles are the last 16- and 17-year-olds being held in “restrictive housing,” where inmates are confined to a cell for 22 or 23 hours a day.
According to the advocacy group Disability Rights NC, being segregated in solitary confinement can cause deterioration in mental health, producing paranoia, post-traumatic stress disorder, self-harm, and thoughts of suicide.
Guice said that a few more months are needed to get enough staff and get them trained for the new housing regimen that will address inmates with behavioral issues in a different way. And his department is working to create a similar facility in Pasquotank County that will open in the near future.
“Although 16- and 17-year-olds are adjudicated as adults, they should not be treated the same as adults in the prison system,” Guice told NC Health News in an interview last week.
The new regimen at Foothills consists of creating smaller housing “pods” where inmates are given positive reinforcements to engage in good behavior. The policy document describes an evidence-based approach that emphasizes “rational thinking, appropriate communication and behaviors.”
Key to the approach are incentives ranging from receiving books, extra movies, popcorn or nachos, to participation in field days and access to music.
Inmates who do display behavior problems, instead of being confined in solitary, will be placed in “modified housing,” with more intense supervision and tiered losses of privileges.
There’s also the opportunity for inmates to learn trade skills and an increased emphasis on addressing the mental-health needs of teen inmates.
“We’ve actually set up programs where even those who have the worst behavioral issues in the system, we’re now placing those people in programs that we believe are going to be successful,” he said.
North Carolina is one of only two states in the country — the other is New York — that still charges 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, even when their crimes are for minor offenses such as littering.
For years, advocates have been pushing for legislation to “raise the age” of incarceration in the prison system. A bill passed the House in 2014, but the legislation has stalled in the Senate.
A cost-benefit analysis performed by the Vera Institute of Justice in 2009 found that raising the age of adult incarceration would cost $70.9 million but provide $123.1 million in benefits and savings per year.
Until the legislature acts, the new policies will make for more age-appropriate incarceration, Guice said.
Guice also said his department is in the process of “remissioning” all of the state’s correctional facilities, and an effort that includes getting adults out of solitary confinement as well.
“About six months ago we had about 5,500 inmates who fell into that category, and today we have less than 2,500,” he said.
For advocates, the changes can’t happen fast enough, especially because other young people in the correction system are still subject to solitary confinement.
“Today, for example, 20 percent of 18-year-olds in NC prisons are in segregation as well as hundreds of adults who have mental illness,” Vicki Smith, head of Disability Rights NC, said in a statement. The organization has long pushed for raising the age, and for ending solitary for all inmates.
“Commissioner Guice has identified solutions, but his progress will be stifled without adequate funding from the General Assembly,” she said.
Guice said he’s doing what he can with what he’s got. He has gotten some funding from the legislature over the past few years, a result of the Justice Reinvestment Act, which was signed in 2011.
He stressed the fact that more than 90 percent of people who end up in prison will eventually return to the community, and this is what’s driving his reform efforts.
“It is truly my goal to insure that the person who comes to us… that we provide them with a pathway that’s going to give them an opportunity to leave us better off than they came,” said Guice, who pointed out this means addressing mental-health needs and housing and work for newly released inmates.
“I know what we need to do and it’s creating a pathway to address those underlying issues,” he said. “I believe that the system fails if we release someone and we do not provide a pathway that that individual can be successful.”