By Taylor Knopf

Last spring, Devon Davis said he was riding in the passenger seat of his early 2000s model Lexus when he and his buddy were stopped by Raleigh police.

There was a gun in the vehicle. Davis said it belonged to the driver. The driver said it belonged to Davis: A classic case of “he said,he said.”

shows a young man staring at the camera, expressionless
Mugshot of Devon Davis following his arrest on April 14, 2017. Courtesy of the Raleigh/Wake City-County Bureau of Identification.

Davis, 26, has a felony record; under state law, he’s forbidden to own or possess a firearm. Insisting the weapon wasn’t his, Davis said he told the officer to check for his fingerprints on it.

Then, Davis recounted that he was frazzled. He resisted arrest. His car was impounded, and he was escorted to Wake County jail.

After several months in jail awaiting sentencing, Davis was convicted of the firearms charge and sent to Central Prison in Raleigh, where from 2012 to 2015 he spent 1,001 days alone in a cell.

Devon Davis was first featured in a two-part News & Observer story in 2016 called “Solitary to the Streets.”

During this incarceration, his mental health problems got worse. And prison officials violated their own policies.

Davis, who’s been diagnosed with a number of mental health issues, was immediately placed back into solitary confinement. Prison officials call it “restrictive” or “segregated” housing, but it equates to an inmate spending 22 to 24 hours a day alone in a cell roughly the size of a parking space.

Those familiar with prison procedures said returning inmates are often placed in the same custody level they left. For Davis, this meant back to solitary where he remained for 154 days before being moved to the regular prison population.

This is a long time particularly for an inmate with no infractions — such as fighting, spitting, cursing or disobeying orders.

Additionally, keeping Davis in solitary for an extended time violated a 2016 prison policy that prohibits housing inmates with mental illness in restrictive housing for more than 30 days.

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But here’s where it gets tricky. Davis was not put on the prison’s mental health caseload, even though he received psychiatric care during most of his previous three-year incarceration.

Davis said he asked for his mental health medication — twice — but he had to wait and wait to get it. From the time Davis entered Central Prison on Oct. 13, 2017 until February 2 — 113 days — he went without medication, according to his medical records received by Disability Rights NC attorney Susan Pollitt.

Denying an inmate appropriate medical care is a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, according to Chris Brook, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.

Davis didn’t leave solitary confinement until March 15. And that’s after a lawyer and a NC Health News reporter began inquiring about him.

According to other attorneys who work with inmates, Davis isn’t the only prisoner with a mental illness being held in solitary for more than a month.

‘Walls close in’

Davis has a long history of mental illness coupled with a difficult upbringing.

He was born with cocaine in his system, which can cause long-term developmental problems. After developing auditory hallucinations at age 6, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

Davis’ mother and father each did time in prison, and the court ultimately terminated their parental rights. Davis bounced between group homes and foster care.

A young African American man stands with a thick sheaf of papers in hte crook of his arm. He's smiling at the camera.
Devon Davis walks down Fayetteville Street in downtown Raleigh holding his prison psychiatric records in April 2016. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf.

His court records detail 11 psychological evaluations throughout his childhood, after which doctors made several diagnoses, including ADHD, bipolar disorder and a psychotic disorder.

Davis entered a state prison before he was 21, where he endured three years of solitary confinement, which experts say can exacerbate the symptoms of a mental illness.

During Davis’ first incarceration, prison records say he acted out, yelled and cursed at staff. He exhibited signs of depression and paranoia, including a time when he smeared feces in his cell, telling staff that voices told him to do it.

“It just did something to me,” Davis said in 2015 after he was released from his first incarceration.

“You stay back there for so long, you start to get comfortable. As you start to get comfortable, it does something to you physically. It does something to you mentally. Now you don’t know if you’re coming or going. Walls close in on you. You so anxious to get out your room, but they [the guards] don’t want you to come out. They take your [recreation time], saying that you’re asleep.”

During his first incarceration, Davis tried to hurt himself multiple times and was placed on suicide watch, records show.

Changes ordered

Shortly after Davis’ story ran in The News & Observer in 2016, the state Department of Public Safety announced a new suicide prevention program with updated health policies. A number of the changes involved better monitoring and evaluation of inmates with a mental health diagnosis.

One of the program goals: keep inmates with mental illnesses out of solitary confinement.

A young African American man sits at a table, writing in a workbook.
Devon Davis works on his GED writing test in the spring of 2016. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

“As placement of a mentally ill inmate in restrictive housing is discouraged and shall take place only as a last resort, such placement should be limited to 30 days in one calendar year,” the policy states.

Over the last several years, there has been an effort across the nation — and in North Carolina — to decrease or eliminate the use of solitary confinement in jails and prisons.

World leaders have compared the use of solitary confinement to torture. And for decades, researchers have documented the detrimental psychological effects prolonged isolation has on a person’s mental health.

N.C. prison leaders even sought outside help from the Vera Institute of Justice to reduce their use of solitary confinement for disciplinary purposes. When the suicide prevention policies went into effect in 2016, advocates said, “it was a step in the right direction.”

But today, people like Davis are still being sent to solitary.

And in the last five months, prison officials reported five North Carolina inmates died by suicide. At least two were in restrictive housing at the time of death.

Many factors determine length of solitary

NC Prisoner Legal Services, lawyers who work doing indigent services for the N.C. court system, continues to receive letters from inmates with diagnosed mental illnesses who have been kept in segregation longer than a month, said Michele Luecking-Sunman, PLS civil litigation managing attorney.

Shows a list of rights and contact information for the agency
A description of Prison Legal Services posted near a pay phone at Central Prison, fall 2016. Photo credit: Rose Hoban.

However, she has not personally come across a case like Davis’ where prison staff withheld psychiatric medication and kept an inmate in segregation.

“What we do see all the time are people who have very clear mental health issues who are being put in segregation,” Luecking-Sunman said.

And during an interview, Davis said there were other men with him — in what he calls “lock-down” — who also had mental health issues.

Gary Junker, the director of behavioral health for the N.C. DPS, Division of Prisons, said that inmates with a diagnosed mental illness are assessed when entering a restrictive housing unit and at 30-day intervals after that.

“A decision to maintain an offender in restrictive housing is based on many factors including current mental status, adjustment to restrictive housing, as well as consideration for institutional safety and security,” Junker said in a written statement to NC Health News.

“In some instances, an offender with a mental illness refuses to leave restrictive housing,” he continued. “If the multidisciplinary team determines that removing an offender from restrictive housing may place others at risk for assault or injury, or would potentially disrupt the orderly running of the institution, a decision can be made to continue the offender’s housing status.”

Prison officials would not say how many inmates are on a mental health caseload and also held in restrictive housing.

Lack of resources in and out of prison

One problem the prison faces is a lack of resources to properly treat all inmates with mental illness in the system, said PLS Director Mary Pollard.

ACLU attorney Chris Brook seconded that, saying DPS needs “improved and more robust mental health screening when someone comes into prison, so that prisoners with mental illness do not fall through the cracks.”

Brook said there also needs to be “ironclad rules” to make sure inmates aren’t sent to segregation due to behavior caused by their mental illness.

The ACLU of NC also receives complaints from inmates who say they’re not receiving proper medical care, both for physical and mental health issues.

“Prisoners have a constitutional right to receive appropriate medical care when they are incarcerated,” Brook said. “The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Depriving a prisoner of necessary medical treatment is a violation of the Eighth Amendment.”

However, Brook claimed mental illness is often seen as “less serious” than physical ailments.

“We would all agree that it’s their responsibility to treat a prisoner who is suffering from a heart attack,” he continued. “The same logic says that we need to be treating folks who are incarcerated who suffer from mental illness.”

Brook emphasized that an inmate’s medical issues don’t just exist inside the prison walls. When they are released, they will become issues that society then must address.

“I think Mr. Davis’ case makes this plain as well, this is not just an ‘inside the walls’ issue,” Brook said. “We need better mental health treatment options in our communities, especially for those who have just been released from prison.”

They are your neighbors

North Carolina prisons currently house about 36,500 people. And almost all of these inmates – 95 percent – will eventually return to society. Every year, about 24,000 prisoners are released at the ends of their sentences.

Over the past decade, there has been a 60 percent increase of inmates diagnosed with chronic illnesses and a 65 percent increase of those diagnosed with a mental illness, according to Joe Prater, DPS secretary of administration for adult corrections and juvenile justice.

About 17 percent of the total prison population have a mental health diagnosis, Prater said. And the majority of inmates with these illnesses have more than one diagnosis.

Gov. Roy Cooper recently declared the last week in April as “Reentry Week.”

“North Carolina is a better and safer place when those who take responsibility for and learn from their mistakes can get another chance to live productive, purposeful lives,” Cooper said in a press release.

The State Reentry Council Collaborative, established by lawmakers last year, is made up of work groups looking at issues that affect people exiting prison such as unemployment, transportation, mental health issues and substance abuse.

These are some of the things Davis dealt with when he left prison the first time. He struggled to find housing and a job. He was homeless for a time. He went on and off his mental health medication, frequently missing appointments.

Davis said he was working as a barber and living out of his car when he was arrested again last spring.

Right now, Davis is happy to be in the prison’s regular population. His mood is better, and he’s smiling again. Back on his medications, Davis described himself as “a walking pharmacy.”

Now that he’s out of solitary, Davis is part of a prison work program, which gives him credits toward his overall sentence time. From 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., he serves on the prison’s hospital janitorial staff, sweeping floors, wiping windows, and emptying trash cans.

Davis said he’s just keeping his head down and riding out his sentence. He vows to stay away from the bad crowd that landed him in prison the second time around.

And at the end of this month, he’ll be out.

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Taylor Knopf writes about mental health, including addiction and harm reduction. She lives in Raleigh and previously wrote for The News & Observer. Knopf has a bachelor's degree in sociology with a...

2 replies on “NC Prison Breaks Its Own Rules for Suicide Prevention”

  1. This is a terrible situation. More mental health care and screening is needed. From a professional who has worked in Central Prison ( NP in mental health), I saw this first hand. As a mother of a Corrections Officer, I hear about daily under-staffing and unqualified personnel being shifted around to be some other block’s problem. My heart bleeds for both parties who are imprisoned for different reasons ( staff and prisoners). There is major work to be done at Central Prison and the surrounding jails. Glad you are bringing attention to some of these, but with increased programming, we need increased staffing and increased staff salaries, which might bring more qualified people into the system and retain them there.

    1. how about a 18 year old young man with no prior arrests who has displayed signs of mental illness locked in his cell for 23 hours a day seven days a week? for three years? As of yet has had no psychiatric attention to help him. Who can help me

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