Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

In our Explainer series, Fair Punishment Project lawyers help unpackage some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines - like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine - so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail. We will update our Explainers monthly to keep them current. Read our updated explainer here.
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What North Carolina won’t tell you about inmates in solitary confinement

In North Carolina prisons, inmates in solitary confinement typically spend 22
to 23 hours a day inside cells that are smaller than a parking space. This cell, at
Central Prison in Raleigh, is smaller than 100 square feet. Photo: J. Miller
In North Carolina’s prisons, about half a dozen inmates have been in solitary confinement for more than a decade.

But the state doesn’t want you to know who they are.

State officials say they’ve been working to reduce their use of the punishment as awareness grows about the dangerous psychological effects of isolating prisoners.

Roughly 2,500 North Carolina inmates are in solitary at any given time. As of early March, the most recent date for which state prison officials provided information, seven inmates had been in solitary for more than 10 years – a practice that human rights experts say amounts to torture.

A prison spokesman rejected the Observer’s request for the names of those inmates, citing a court ruling about the confidentiality of prisoner records.

The Observer identified two of those prisoners through other means. One of them – an inmate named Jason Swain who the Observer profiled earlier this year – suffers from bipolar depression and had been in solitary confinement for more than 13 years. Swain, now at Central Prison in Raleigh, has repeatedly swallowed razors, ripped open his surgical incisions and plunged sharp objects into his open wounds.

Another inmate, Shawn Minnich, recently wrote to an Observer reporter after reading Swain’s story to say that he, too, has been in solitary for 13 straight years.

State prison officials said Minnich has been kept in long-term segregation because he is considered “an extreme escape risk” and has a history of assaulting staff members.

But Minnich, 48, says he has been kept in solitary even after going more than two years without disciplinary infractions.

He described grueling conditions at Central Prison, such as being confined for 14 hours in a tiny prison cell that had been flooded with foul-smelling toilet water. After seeing the flooding in Swain’s cell, prison officers cut off the water to it. But they did not move him for hours, he said, so he was forced to defecate in a plastic bag.

Solitary confinement is considered to be the most extreme form of punishment in the United States, short of the death penalty. For that reason, it’s important for the public to know how it’s administered, watchdogs say.

It was only after the Observer’s first story about Swain that he was released from solitary and allowed to visit with his mother for the first time since 1999.

Inmates in solitary usually spend 22 to 24 hours a day in concrete cells smaller than parking spaces, with strict limitations on visitors. When inmates do leave their cells for showers, recreation or therapy, they are typically handcuffed and accompanied by guards. They rarely get to talk face-to-face with other inmates. Their recreational time is often spent in empty steel cages.

Researchers have found that prolonged solitary confinement can cause and worsen psychiatric problems. That can create a vicious cycle: Mental disorders make inmates more prone to commit offenses, which in turn makes them more likely to be thrown into solitary.

In 2015, the United Nations approved the so-called “Mandela Rules,” which seek to prohibit the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days, and to ban it for inmates whose mental or physical disabilities could be worsened by segregation.

State prison officials would not allow reporters to interview Minnich or any other inmates in solitary. But in letters summarizing his struggles, Minnich said he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder – a condition that he attributes to living in solitary. “It’s like living on a battlefield for years,” he said.

"It's like living on the battlefield for years."
“The amount of stress and b.s. a prisoner on segregation goes through in just one day is equal to all a regular person in the free world goes through in a whole month … sometimes in a whole year,” wrote Minnich, who is serving time for armed robbery, having sex with a minor and other offenses.

A friend of Minnich’s – Daniel Shain, a professor who heads the biology department at Rutgers University – has vouched for much of the inmate’s account.

Shain and others don’t dispute that Minnich deserved to go to prison. But no one, they say, should be kept in solitary so long.

“By any standard, this is cruel and unusual punishment equivalent to torture,” Shain wrote in a May letter to state prison officials, lawyers and lawmakers. “... This is not the example we should set for the rest of the world.”

Shawn’s father, Ed Minnich, a former state official who managed counseling services for state and local governments, acknowledges that his son made serious mistakes. And he says he’s had many disagreements with him. But no one deserves the treatment he’s gotten in prison, his father says.

“The one thing that he and I absolutely agree on is that he has gotten screwed over,” Ed Minnich said.

‘What are they hiding?’

State prison officials refused to confirm how long Minnich has been held in solitary confinement.

Elizabeth Forbes, who heads the criminal justice reform group NC CURE, said she sees no justification for withholding the names of inmates in long-term solitary.

“What on earth are they hiding?” she asked.

Researchers have found that solitary can trigger many psychological problems, from depression and rage to hallucinations, self-mutilation and suicidal behavior – problems that can continue to haunt people even after they’re released from prison.

When information about inmates in solitary is kept from the public, it’s harder for advocates to help inmates, Forbes said.

“What right do they have to tie our hands and keep us from helping people who’ve been kept in isolation so long?” she asked. “To me, there’s something very wrong with that.”

Click here to read the full article

Source: The Charlotte Observer, Ames Alexander, November 11, 2016

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