RALEIGH, N.C. – Four plaintiffs and the ACLU of North Carolina have filed a class-action lawsuit in a Wake County Superior Court against the state’s use of solitary confinement. The practice involves holding people in isolation cells no larger than a parking space for 22-24 hours a day.
Irena Como, acting legal director at the ACLU of North Carolina, said the use of solitary confinement violates the state constitution’s ban on cruel or unusual punishment.
“We are asking that prison officials stop using solitary confinement, and use it only as a last resort for the shortest duration possible and when there is no other option,” Como said.
The lawsuit documents how nonviolent transgressions in prison often are penalized with solitary confinement. People can face nearly a month in isolation for possessing a cell phone, lying to prison staff or refusing a drug test.
Around 3,000 people currently are being held in some form of solitary confinement in North Carolina.
Como said Rocky Dewalt, one of the plaintiffs in the case, routinely experiences anxiety, depression, paranoia and suicidal thoughts. He has been held in solitary for more than a decade. Como said medical research suggests long-term isolation can profoundly damage the brain.
“We know that solitary confinement creates and exacerbates mental illness,” she said. “It makes people sick, even when they are exposed to solitary-confinement conditions for a very short amount of time.”
Como said she believes the use of solitary confinement makes it even more difficult for imprisoned people to adjust to life after release.
“There’s growing consensus as well that solitary does not make us safer. It does not rehabilitate people or prepare them to re-enter society,” she said.
A study published in October by the Journal of the American Medical Association Network found that people released from North Carolina prisons who had spent time in solitary confinement were 24% more likely to die in the first year after their release – especially from suicide, but also from homicide and opioid overdose – than those who had been incarcerated but not held in solitary. The state Department of Safety has not publicly commented on the case.