Our 15 for 15 campaign calls attention to the fact that too many people with disabilities are subject to discrimination barriers, and lack of support to live safe, integrated lives in our communities.

For people entangled in the criminal legal system, the chance of justice is even more distant. Today, nearly 40 percent of incarcerated people report having a disability. In North Carolina prisons, nearly 20 percent self-identify as needing mental health treatment. Last year, 70 percent of people incarcerated in NC prisons reported a substance use disorder, or a need for substance use and mental health assistance. Compared to past decades, more people with mental health disabilities are in jails and prisons than hospitals. Alarmingly, every juvenile currently in a NC Youth Development Center is identified as needing treatment for a disability.

People with disabilities are not only overrepresented in NC’s prisons and jails where they face obstacles to necessary treatment throughout the criminal process, they are also overrepresented in dangerous interactions with law enforcement because of the state’s failure to take action to ensure that mental health services are available in NC communities. This failure is hurting our state and the people in it.


DRNC’s Criminal Legal team identifies and advocates for improvements in the treatment of people with disabilities in prisons and jails. Our staff work to ensure the rights of incarcerated disabled people under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are protected.

DRNC’s goal is to enforce the ADA in NC prisons so incarcerated people with disabilities are no longer discriminated against and are able to access programs and services while in prison, including as part of their preparation for successful reentry upon release.

NC’s jails are neither designed nor funded to provide mental health treatment, yet with NC’s failure to build community mental health infrastructure and services, they have increasingly become de facto mental health facilities. Suicides continue to occur at an alarming rate in NC jails. Advocacy is needed to ensure sheriffs appropriately respond to the mental health needs of their populations. Sadly, DRNC has learned that sheriffs are also failing to protect the increasing numbers of arrestees in crisis due to substance use.

There are few organizations monitoring conditions in our NC jails, and DRNC’s efforts have a meaningful impact on the quality of care for people with disabilities.

Record number of suicides in NC jails

More people have died by suicide in NC jails than any other cause, vastly surpassing national averages. These deaths are preventable, yet the numbers rise almost every year. In 2020, NC jails saw the most deaths by suicide – 21; this in the same year new jail regulations required suicide prevention programs.

Disability Rights North Carolina  (DRNC) has been monitoring deaths in jails since 2013.

In 2017, DRNC released a report of our 4-year study of jail deaths, to draw attention to the alarming increase in suicide deaths in NC jails from 2013 – 2016. DRNC’s recommendations urged county sheriffs and state legislators to require improved response from jails when people are in mental health crises, and to address the gaps in oversight leading to these deaths.

DRNC issued an updated report in 2019 that showed these trends continuing during 2017-2018. State agencies did not adopt any of DRNC’s recommendations from the first report, and suicides and death by overdose in jails continued to increase. The following year saw even higher rates of jail deaths by suicide and overdose. DRNC released this 2019 data in our 2020 update report, and again urged the adoption of vital jail reforms to prevent future deaths. In March 2022, DRNC issued our analysis of 2020 jail deaths, and the number of deaths due to suicide have increased yet again. This failure to act and save lives is inexcusable.

DRNC 2020 report recommendations

This 2020 data demands action. These dangerous, life-threatening trends must be corrected. As with our prior reports, DRNC yet again urges NC jails to adopt active suicide prevention programs. We also recommend:

  1. Require the creation of Suicide Prevention Programs that are robust and systematic
  2. Provide adequate health and mental health care for incarcerated people
  3. Pass legislation to provide more transparency about the condition of NC jails
  4. Adequately fund the jail regulation unit at the DHSR
  5. Engage in a community Stepping Up campaign to reduce the number of people with mental health and substance use needs who end up in our jails.

Access an in-depth review of DRNC recommendations and the 2020 Deaths in Jails Report

Working to end solitary confinement of disabled people in NC prisons

The NC Department of Public Safety (DPS) continues to house people with mental health disabilities in solitary confinement without critically needed out-of-cell treatment. DPS fails to identify and accommodate thousands of inmates with disabilities, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and unable to access programs that can lead to successful reentry. Confining disabled people in isolation is torture.

Unlock the Box #StopTortureInNCPrisons launched to end solitary confinement

Nearly 3,000 people live in solitary confinement in NC prisons. This is despite scientific and international communities’ consensus that solitary confinement for more than 15 days is torture. Many people in solitary have untreated mental health disabilities and their symptoms are exacerbated by these conditions. A disproportionate number of people in solitary confinement are people of color. The overuse of solitary confinement in NC prisons creates dangers for our communities, as 98% will be released to come home, some directly from solitary.

DRNC launched Unlock the Box #StopTortureInNCPrisons in January 2021 to end the use of solitary confinement in NC prisons for:

  • People diagnosed with serious mental health disabilities, disability, or substance use disorder
  • People 21 and under
  • Pregnant people
  • Indefinite periods of time (more than 15 consecutive days)

Watch the video below with audio descriptions using this link


The Unlock the Box Campaign is a coalition of organizations and movement leaders who partner with state and local campaigns across the United States with the common goal of ending the use of solitary confinement.

Read more about Unlock the Box strategies

Learn more about DRNC Unlock the Box Stop Torture in NC Prisons Campaign, and how you can help

End of Isolation Tour – August 25, 2022

On August 25th at the Ramkat in Winston-Salem, the End of Isolation Tour will bring what organizers call “an immersive, transformative theater performance of The BOX, imagining a world without prisons and the torture of solitary confinement.” The BOX is a play written by Sarah Shourd, a survivor of solitary confinement, in collaboration with other survivors. The play is about “a collective resistance and personal transformation inspired by stories in US prisons collected through years of in-depth letter correspondence and visits with incarcerated people across the country. The BOX is a rare glimpse at the intimate bonds forged in the deep end of our prison system, the ripple effects of systematic torture, and what it means to be human.”

Learn more and purchase tickets

NEW Traumatic Brain Injury Justice Initiative

DRNC is currently working towards the implementation of  in the criminal legal system. This project will address the current gap in TBI awareness, screening, and supportive assistance available to justice-involved individuals.

A TBI can have long-lasting and profound effects on a person’s health and well-being, including cognitive and psychological consequences. Training, education, and accommodation about the effects of TBI will strengthen recovery and improve outcomes in our criminal legal system and our communities.

Access DRNC’s TBI Justice Initiative Guide

Learn more about “Traumatic Brain Injury in Prisons and Jails”