By Taylor Knopf
When Senate lawmakers took up a controversial prison security bill on Friday, some said they were not pleased by the changes made in the House.
Among other things, the bill will add felony charges, with more time in prison added to the sentences of inmates who expose themselves to or throw bodily or unknown fluids toward a correctional officer. As originally written, these additional felonies would be served consecutively after an inmate’s initial prison sentences expired.
But mental health advocates worried that this would disproportionately impact inmates with mental illnesses who they argued have less control over their behavior and tend to act out in ways that are a symptom of their diagnoses. They feared these inmates could remain in prison for many additional years under this new law.
After heated debate in a judiciary committee earlier this month, House lawmakers lessened the felony charge from a class F charge, on par with involuntary manslaughter, to the lowest felony class I.
Additionally, members of the House decided to leave the timing of the sentence up to a judge’s discretion.
Mental health advocates felt this was a good compromise because a judge could take every factor into account and allow the sentences to be served concurrently or consecutively based on the individual circumstances.
But when the bill came back to the Senate floor for debate and passage on Friday, co-sponsor Sen. Shirley Randleman (R- Wilkesboro) introduced an amendment to remove the judicial discretion and restore the penalty to sentences served consecutively.
Sen. Norman Sanderson (R- Arapahoe), the other co-sponsor, said the bill as amended by the House didn’t have any “teeth.”
“And we always find ourselves coming back and trying to add teeth as a second thought,” he said. “Sometimes that’s very difficult to do after precedent has been set.
“Allowing this kind of behavior to go on and only give them a punishment […] of nothing — because that’s what running concurrently would be — they have nothing to gain and nothing to lose,” Sanderson said.
He added that he is against female correctional officers serving in male prisons, but said an employee shortage gives the Department of Public Safety few other options.
“These inmates need to get a strong message, that if they engage in this behavior, there is going to be a price to pay and it’s not just going to be a slap on the wrist. That is the only thing that’s going to change the attitudes of some of these folks,” he concluded.
Sen. Floyd McKissick (D-Durham) asked his colleagues vote against the amendment, saying that many of the stakeholders who were involved in the House discussion found it best to leave the sentencing up to a judge. He also noted the increased taxpayer cost that would result from incarcerating inmates for longer periods of time.
Randleman’s staff confirmed that the changes would incorporate the sentencing grid, which takes into account prior felonies and misdemeanors, meaning an inmate could receive up to five additional years to their sentence.
Ultimately, the bill passed through both chambers and was sent to the governor.
Mental health advocates frustrated
Officials at DPS sent a memo to lawmakers about the need for the bill along with some current statistics.
About 70 percent of the current inmate population has a mental health diagnosis, the memo reads.
It also states that “to date, there are more non-mentally ill inmates who knowingly, and willfully masturbate in the presence of corrections officers.”
This phrase “knowingly and willfully” is a vague standard, said N.C. Justice Center attorney David Bowes.
“The idea is to stop correctional officers from being victims, but that assumes an ability to curb this behavior,” he said. “We will have to see how the ‘knowingly and willfully’ will play into it.
“This lends itself to people who can’t curb their actions, being held accountable as if they could curb their actions,” Bowes said. “People with mental illness not knowingly exposing themselves could have time added to their sentences.”
Additionally, the DPS memo does not address which inmates are more likely to engage in the other behaviors, throwing of bodily or unknown fluids.
Advocates and other prisoners have said that inmates with mental illness, especially those kept in solitary confinement, tend to act out in these ways as their psychiatric condition worsens.
“You aren’t going to persuade a person with a severe mental illness to change behavior with an additional felony sentence,” said Kristin Parks, an attorney with Disability Rights North Carolina.
She said that if an inmate is acting out in these ways with the purpose of hurting a correctional officer, the House version of the bill would have given a judge the ability to run his sentence consecutively.
“This takes the facts out of the case,” Parks said. “I don’t think it’s good policy for our courts system.”
This bill has the potential to greatly increase the number of people the state has incarcerated in the future, Parks said, and significantly add to the time and money spent on these types of cases in court.
She explained that automatically causing the sentences to run consecutively takes away the courts ability to negotiate a plea, with the only other option being a trial. This could be costly as appointed public defenders, inmates and correctional officers will have to travel back and forth from prisons to court.
Parks said there are many cost-free measures the prison could be using to discipline this type of behavior that would affect inmates more on a day to day basis, such as revoking the privileges to phones calls or canteen for a period of time.
“I hope what comes out of this is that DPS realizes how deeply a lot of advocates and legislators care about people with mental illnesses that are in their prisons,” she said. “And that they will take step to address the concerns of those people and address the treatment necessary to avoid some of these problems altogether.”