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.”
It is so exciting to see these kinds of changes being made. Huge kudos to Mr. Guice for these efforts!
Using effective and humane approaches with young people will also help North Carolina to serve as a leader for other prison systems that may be interested in trying similar programs.
These kinds of changes can very understandably be stressful for staff if they are used to a certain way of doing things and they may also raise real and understandable concerns about safety and whether new approaches can be effective.
The more that prison systems can determine what approaches work well to help people grow in positive ways while treating them respectfully and humanely, the more they will be able to help other prison systems.
We may need to get a better understanding of what staffing levels need to look like, how fast changes can realistically be implemented, what extra resources are needed, what additional training may be needed, and what obstacles are likely to come up. As knowledge of these issues increases, prisons system administrators and correctional officers can increasingly offer a helping hand to their peers in other systems who may also want to explore their options for change.
Seeing each person as a person in need of help rather than as a problem or an obstacle to the smooth functioning of the prison system is an important cultural norm. This may realistically take more resources, training, and staffing.
Long-term, we also need to think as a community about what our goals are and what a humane world looks like. People who do not need to be in a secure setting should be in the community. This is something that is largely not within the control of correctional officers and administrators, but is an important issue. We need to find community resources so that people who could benefit from a less intensive response can be in a community setting. This needs to be a long-term goal for us as a community.
In the meantime, I was so happy to see the wonderful things that North Carolina is doing. Like everyone else, I care a lot about our young people, and so seeing how much Mr. Guice and others in North Carolina care about creating good environments for growth and change added so much happiness and joy to my life, and much more importantly, to the lives of our youth.
When everyone is treated well, we all become happier. We all want to live in a world where everyone is cared about and well-treated. Every action, large or small, that each person takes can get us closer to our common goal.
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