Nine people have died by suicide in North Carolina prisons this year, more suicides than any year except 2018. Disability Rights NC is alarmed by this disturbing trend, which was so clearly laid out last week in reporter Ames Alexander’s articles.

Each death is devastating and traumatic for the deceased, their loved ones, prison staff, people who witness the loss, and who later learn of it. Excessively high prison populations, severe understaffing, and lack of prison mental health resources fuel an increasingly environment. Reforms must be implemented to stop tragic prison suicides.

Why? North Carolina’s community behavioral health system is broken and results in many people with disabilities landing inside our prisons. The rates of mental health disabilities in our prisons (15%) are much higher than in our communities (5%). Once in prison, far too many are subject to psychologically damaging solitary confinement.

North Carolina holds over 2,500 people in solitary confinement. A disproportionate number – 66.5% – are people of color. People in solitary are stuck in small cells for over 22 hours a day, for months and even years without knowing if or when they will be released. Many have pre-existing mental health needs, and others developmental health problems due to the inhumane conditions.

Since January 2021, 13 of the 18 people who died by suicide in N.C. prisons were in solitary. Five of the nine people we’ve lost to suicide in 2022 were in solitary.

People in solitary usually lack adequate mental healthcare. Those who receive care often continue to have serious symptoms because they remain isolated. North Carolina prisons must expand programs like Therapeutic Diversion Units (TDUs) that remove people from solitary and offer rehabilitation and treatment. TDUs have been shown to reduce rule violations, self-harm, and time spent in acute psychiatric units. They are promising alternatives to solitary confinement for people with mental health disabilities.

The scientific consensus is that solitary is mentally and physically harmful. The Governor’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice (TREC) recommended ending the use of long-term solitary confinement, especially for those with mental health disabilities. Other states have safely reduced their use of solitary. Our state must do the same, adopt TREC’s recommendations, and invest in programs like TDUsso people, prisons and our communities are safer.

Right now, more suicides are likely because N.C. prisons cannot hire enough staff to safely incarcerate 30,000 people. Some prisons have a 40% staff vacancy rate. Staff shortages impact every sector of prison life, taking a toll on officers and incarcerated people.

Although prison units have been closed and staff consolidated, the size of the incarcerated population still greatly overwhelms available staff. Without enough staff to supervise cell blocks, thousands of people are locked away most of the day. Entire facilities have stopped outdoor exercise and programming of all sorts is sporadic.

Prisons are supposed to keep people alive and safe while they serve their sentence and release them better than when they entered. Yet, chronic staff shortages have exposed people to unbearable physical and mental conditions. Rehabilitation efforts are largely shut down, making productively rejoining communities difficult for the nearly 20,000 people released from N.C. prisons each year. This is the harmful status quo. We must do better.

Many people in N.C. prisons are sick, disabled or elderly and can be safely supervised at home. In 2021, the state released 3,500 people early on Extended Limits of Confinement in just six months. Incarcerating someone with high health needs is costly. Compassionate releases will save money, make prisons safer, and improve outcomes. We must restart this sensible program immediately.

Gov. Roy Cooper recently named former Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee as Secretary of the new Department of Adult Correction. Disability Rights NC and many other advocates stand ready to help him accomplish these reforms so that N.C. prisons provide humane care and treatment and release productive, resilient people back to our communities.

This Op-Ed, by Susan H. Pollitt, a Supervising Attorney at Disability Rights North Carolina was published on October 9, 2022. The opinion piece ran in the News & Observer, Charotte Observer, and the Herald-Sun.