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By Taylor Knopf

The year 2017 was a deadly one for North Carolina prison officers. Five died in two separate incidents. Both made statewide headlines and lawmakers vowed to do something.

Prison officials cited severe staffing shortages and high turnover rates as part of the problems that led to the officers’ deaths. The Charlotte Observer found that the state hired 2,000 corrections employees in 2018 and lost about as many in the same year.

In response, the state senate formed a special committee to investigate ways to improve prison safety and make correction facilities more desirable places to work. The committee met several times over the past year and released its final recommendations on Monday.

Two of the senators’ eight recommendations are to improve the mental health of officers and inmates.

The committee recommended that the state Department of Public Safety find ways to better support the mental health of its corrections employees.

Sen. Harper Peterson (D-Wilmington) added that he would like to see a mental health screening component in the interview process for people applying for corrections officer positions.

“The social interaction between officer and inmate is a very exceptional dynamic, not your typical interaction,” he said.

The senators also recommend that DPS provide better mental health services to inmates in order to improve safety in the state’s prisons, including improving mental health screenings when an inmate is admitted to a prison.

Along those lines, the senators recommended that prisons reduce the use of solitary confinement.

What is solitary confinement (aka, segregation)? Excerpts from an interview with a former inmate.

“There seems to be a national trend, if you will, to reduce solitary confinement,” said committee chairman Bob Steinburg (R-Edenton). “We are learning more and more about the long-term dangers of that.”

Solitary confinement is a practice in which an inmate spends 22 to 24 hours a day alone in a cell roughly the size of a parking space. This isn’t the first time state officials have sought to end or reduce this practice.

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.

Former state prison Commissioner David Guice said in 2016 that it was his goal to end the state’s use of solitary confinement, adding that officers and staff are assaulted more often in solitary confinement housing units. Guice said assaults on corrections staff declined in states that moved away from such practices.

That same year, DPS announced a new suicide prevention program with updated health policies. A number of the changes involved better monitoring and evaluation of inmates with  mental health diagnoses. It included a new policy to keep inmates with mental health diagnoses out of solitary confinement.

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However, NC Health News found that inmates with documented mental illness were still being sent to solitary for lengthy periods of time.

Other recommendations from the committee

To improve prison safety, the senate committee also recommended:

  • That the General Assembly pass legislation to remove the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice from the state Department of Public Safety. The senators want to establish a separate Department of Corrections and Department of Juvenile Justice with a new secretary to head each department.
  • That the General Assembly increase the death benefit for the family of a corrections officer killed at work.
  • That the General Assembly fund incentives that would encourage people to apply for open positions within the prisons and fund incentives for current corrections employees, such as salary increases, referral bonuses, retention bonuses and education assistance.
  • That DPS look into reducing shifts for corrections officers from 12 to eight hour periods.
  • That DPS explore new and improved training options for new and current corrections employees.
  • That DPS require an examination process for those being promoted within corrections facilities.

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Taylor Knopf

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...