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By Taylor Knopf and Rose Hoban, NC Health News

(Editor’s Note: This article includes descriptions of sexual behavior by prisoners that may be disturbing to some readers.)

Mental health advocates are concerned that a bill to enhance prison safety could disproportionately hurt inmates with severe mental illnesses.

A bill making its way through the General Assembly would have imposed automatic felony charges, with time in prison added to the sentences of inmates who masturbate in front of or throw bodily or unknown fluids toward a correctional officer.

These felony charges could have added up to two years to an inmate’s sentence for each offense, which would be served consecutively. The concern was that this could potentially add more than a decade to an inmate’s time for a prisoner with multiple offenses.

Dave Wickstrom, executive director of the Alliance of Disability Advocates, said he feared this could “keep people with mental illness in prison forever.”

After a contentious legislative committee meeting Thursday afternoon, the bill continued to move forward, but with the penalties softened some.

Nonetheless, advocates worry the measure will sweep up some of the most vulnerable of North Carolina’s prison population, and raise costs.

Prisoners often mental health patients

In prison, particularly in segregation conditions (also known as solitary confinement), inmates often act out by smearing feces or flooding their cells with toilet water. Other inmates have written to reporters with concern about fellow inmates with mental illnesses who act out.

But correctional officers and the statewide organization that represents them says that in order to maintain control they need consequences with teeth to deter prisoners from exposing themselves to, in particular, female prison officers.

“It happens to officers every day of the week, female and male officers,” said Patricia Moore, who retired after 10 years as a correctional officer at Pamlico Correctional Institution, where she spent four years working on restrictive housing units.

“They control you by masturbating, so you don’t want to go to their rooms. If there’s gang activity going around, you know, ‘Hey man, I don’t want to be looking in that window because he’s gonna be masturbating,’ ” she said. “They want to have power over you.”

As for the other behavior — throwing bodily or unknown fluids — this is common among inmates with mental illness, particularly those kept in segregation.

Previous reporting from NC Health News found that inmates with mental illnesses are frequently sent to solitary confinement where they can remain in almost total isolation for weeks, months or years.

About 17 percent of North Carolina’s prison population are diagnosed with a mental illness. And the majority of those inmates have more than one, according to Joe Prater, secretary of administration for adult corrections and juvenile justice for the N.C. Department of Public Safety.

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One prisoner, who spent more than a decade in solitary confinement at Central Prison, wrote in a letter that he’d noticed a continuous problem with inmates housed in solitary with “obvious mental health problems.” He said they displayed behaviors such as “self injury, constantly beating on walls, constant singing very loud, throwing body waste, refusal to bath, etc.”

“On control, mental status deteriorates very quickly,” another inmate at Central Prison wrote.

Prisoners can be sent to segregated housing for any infraction of the rules, such as cursing, spitting, fighting or disobeying an order. ACLU attorney Chris Brook has said in the past that DPS needs to implement “ironclad rules” to make sure inmates aren’t sent to segregation because inmates with mental illness are manifesting symptoms.

Corye Dunn, a lawyer with Disability Rights NC, said behaviors addressed in the bill are “symptomatic of psychosis and other serious mental health conditions.”

“Given the broken condition of our state’s mental health system, it seems particularly cruel to create harsher punishments for those who do not get the treatment they need,” she wrote in an email.

Contentious debate

The bill had people at the legislative building tittering, but eventually became the topic of heated and, at times, bitter discussion during a House Judiciary committee meeting where lawmakers spent almost two hours debating it.

“Every day that I went to work, I was sexually assaulted,” retired correctional officer Moore told lawmakers. She recounted an inmate who masturbated in her direction every day. And when she went to report the incident, Moore said she was compelled to write it up in excruciating detail.

“Was his penis short or long, was it straight or was it crooked, what color was his pubic hair, was it curly,” Moore said. “I had to sit down and answer every one of those questions, and believe it or not, they did not charge him with a B6,” the prison term used for masturbating in public.

Legislators noted that in this instance, it wasn’t the legal system that let the prisoner get away with his offense, but the corrections system itself.

Moore did not say if this particular inmate had a mental health issue, but it’s not only prisoners with mental illness who commit such additional crimes behind bars.

“In 2013, 81 percent of the people that committed one of these offenses had no mental illness, 19 percent did,” said Rep. Allen McNeill, R-Asheboro, who spent time as a correctional officer, citing statistics produced by DPS this month.

“In 2014, 82 percent had no mental illness, 2015, it was statistically about the same, 2017, however, 86 percent had no mental illness, 14 percent did.”

‘Give us another tool’

Multiple Democrats and one Republican struggled with the idea that exposing one’s genitals to prison officials would bring a penalty roughly equivalent to that for involuntary manslaughter and questioned the proportionality of the punishment.

Director of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter defended the bill saying prison officials don’t have any other tools at their disposal.

“The only thing we can do to prevent someone from doing an act in prison is to place them in restrictive housing,” he said, pointing out that rules have changed over the years as advocates campaigned to treat, rather than punish, inmates with mental health problems. “We’re caught in the middle. Across the nation, people are not going to restrictive housing for a long period of time.”

“Give us another tool,” he asked lawmakers. “This would help our staff feel safe. This would be part of the culture change of taking back our prison.”

Nonetheless, Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Hillsborough, offered an amendment to throw the decision back to a judge to decide whether to mete out punishment for the offense.

“We haven’t provided adequate mental health services for all prisoners who need it,” Meyer said by way of explanation. “For people who are acting out in mental health ways and end up getting charged under this statute, would have a mandatory extension of their sentence.”

This angered Ardis Watkins, a long-time lobbyist for the State Employees Association of North Carolina who said her staff has heard about this problem all over the state. She said the larger problem is that the culture inside prisons has shifted.

“There is an idea among the inmates right now … that they want the officers to know that they feel like they are controlling the show in any way they can do that they are going to,” Watkins said. “Why does that matter? We believe that the culture is what led to five brutal deaths, murders of state employees last year in a six month period.”

“I’ve heard more concern over people’s right to their masturbation than I have over officers having the right to go to work without somebody weaponizing their masturbation.”

Meyer argued he understood the prison officers’ frustration, but felt the place to make any sentencing decision was with a judge, “at least until our prison mental health services get figured out.”

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“If we start extending sentences again and again and again, it’s also going to drive up costs on imprisonment,” Meyer said.

In 2015, DPS estimated that the average cost of housing an inmate was $80 a day. Inmates housed at close security prisons cost the most at $96 a day, meaning it costs anywhere from $29,000 to $35,000 a year to incarcerate one inmate.

After another 30 minutes of sharp debate, Meyer’s amendment passed 7-6 on a bipartisan vote. With the amendment added, the bill passed by a wide margin.

Harsh tactics burden system

“We fully support efforts within prison policy, infractions or other mechanisms, to deal with intentional harassing behavior,” said Tarrah Callahan, from Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform. “Given the rate of inmates that have some sort of mental health issue, we are really looking at wrapping up a lot of individuals with class F felonies, that would run consecutively.”

She noted that prison overcrowding is an issue and there’s not enough money as it is to handle what could be a “burdensome number of cases.”

The behavior would be more appropriately handled within the department’s policies, she added.

“(Corrections officials) can go to a judge and a judge can give the person consecutive sentences,” said Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Raleigh, after the meeting was over. “The way that it was, it was mandatory.”

He said leaders at DPS had circulated videos of corrections officers talking about the problem and he understood the problem was serious.

“But I want the serious crimes to be taken seriously and the mental health to be able to get the treatment and the ability for someone — the department, mental health experts, DAs, judges — to be able to differentiate between the two,” Jackson said.

NC Health News

North Carolina Health News is an independent, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering health care in North Carolina employing the highest journalistic standards of fairness, accuracy and extensive research. NCHN seeks to become the premiere source for health reporting in North Carolina. Visit NCHN at northcarolinahealthnews.org.

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