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Imagine a man serving a 20-year prison sentence. He’s told when to eat and what to wear, and he lacks the option of opening a door. He has little to no independence or free will.
This man, like so many prisoners in North Carolina, spends a long time in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement, also called “the hole,” is used for disciplinary purposes. It means this man is alone in an eight by 10-foot concrete cell. He’s allowed one hour of “recreation time” five days a week in a cage outdoors. Anytime he moves from his cell, he’s handcuffed and shackled.
Upon completion of his sentence, this man — in full restraints— is escorted to the prison exit. He’s loaded into a van and driven by prison staff into a community, removed from the extremely controlled environment he has known for two decades.
In an hour, he’s in Walmart with your wife and kids, unshackled and unmonitored.
N.C. Department of Public Safety officials shared this story years ago when my board of directors and I first met with then-Commissioner of Adult Corrections David Guice. We were discussing the need for various criminal justice reforms in North Carolina. This story was an anecdote common to most inmates released from prison. It illustrated needs for an institutional shift in prison culture, away from a punitive focus and toward a rehabilitative model.
Our meeting with Guice and his staff lasted more than three hours as we learned about the ways DPS was working to better address mental health needs. Rehabilitation was a better approach, he said. Guice acknowledged that loss of freedom was the ultimate punishment for inmates, and that it was up to DPS to prepare prisoners for successful re-entry into their communities.
We discussed the multitude of problems Guice and his staff were facing. There was an “old guard” mentality reigning among DPS staff, and many were unwilling to shift from the “tough on crime” mindset. Huge budget cuts meant programs and services were entirely inadequate. Years of slumping funds for mental health services led to prisons becoming warehouses for individuals who needed treatment. Massive vacancies in staffing led to outrageously long shifts for corrections officers who were underpaid — and often untrained.
Recent incidents of violence in North Carolina prisons showcase the extent of the continued problems. Five times last year, people serving our state as corrections officials didn’t return home from work alive. Secretary Eric Hooks and other state leaders should be commended for their swift efforts to determine what went wrong and how future violence can be prevented.
The attention and commitment voiced by our state’s leaders are heartening. But these problems aren’t new and won’t be solved by simply increasing security and improving staff compensation and training. Nor will a rush to shift back to a “tough on crime” model serve to keep our prisons, or communities, safer.
Recent polling by the Justice Action Network shows a vast majority of individuals across the political spectrum recognize that “the main goal of our criminal justice system should be rehabilitating people to become productive, law-abiding citizens.” Such measures are important steps toward protecting public safety.
Many inmates will return to society, and we all benefit from programs that help reduce their return to crime. Treatment and rehabilitative programs in prison will also serve to decrease violence within the system. No one should ever fear for their lives when going to work. At the same time, a 20-year prison sentence for burglary should not ultimately turn out to be a death sentence.
Policy decisions should always be based on evidence, and we have the data to make informed choices. Our prisons are overcrowded, in large part because of laws that lead to nonviolent offenders serving lengthy and counterproductive sentences. North Carolina currently requires mandatory sentences for drug offenses with no room for judicial discretion. Our state’s use of these “mandatory minimums” is at odds with practices in all other Southern states.
The rapid rise in substance abuse has exacerbated drug-related arrests, as addicts end up serving lengthy sentences intended to target large-scale drug dealers. We cannot arrest our way out of this problem. Mental health and substance abuse treatment must be offered to those people whose behavioral episodes have been criminalized.
We all want to feel safe, and we expect our government to take every possible measure to ensure our safety. We have the data. Now we just need to start using it. Otherwise, we’ll be walking around Walmart with people we’ve set up to fail.
Tarrah Callahan is executive director of Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform.