Thursday, 15 December 2011 18:28

Inmate conditions at N.C. prison troubling

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View of an empty cell in a North Carolina prison

In cells like this, a critical report said, mentally ill inmates were naked, left in filth and improperly strapped down at Central Prison in Raleigh. GERRY BROOME - AP

New building will be good but fix any systemic problems as well.

The findings of an internal review of conditions for mentally ill inmates at North Carolina's Central Prison - conditions made public last week - are stomach-churning, no matter what excuses or reasons officials offer. Gov. Bev Perdue rightly called them unacceptable.

We echo the comments she made when told of the neglect and unsanitary situations an internal review documented: "Nobody expects really luxurious treatment for any prisoners; they're there for a reason. But we also expect there to be very decent, humane, healthy conditions for the prison population."

What were those conditions?

Inmates with serious mental disorders were often isolated for weeks, sometimes naked, strapped to their bunks in an improper manner that allowed them to bang their heads against the concrete wall.

In some cells, inmates were left in filthy conditions with urine and feces on the floor and roaches and ants.

Staff failed to maintain up-to-date records, track medications or sometimes respond to calls for medical help.

Chronic understaffing led to sick patients sometimes going untreated and suicidal inmates going unmonitored.

Alvin Keller, outgoing N.C. Secretary of Correction, was in full "explain" mode last week after an Associated Press story made public the findings from the review his division requested. He said the report completed in May "generated great concern" and that within "one business day," officials began to take corrective action.

But Keller also sought to minimize media descriptions of the report, calling some of them "exaggerations" and "mischaracterizations."

That's possible. Yet even Keller admitted there were serious issues raised in this review that demanded attention.

Warden Gerald J. Branker retired this month in wake of the report after a meeting with officials about it in July. Branker will be replaced by Kenneth Lassiter, the warden at Charlotte Correctional Center.

In a statement last week, Keller said the facility is now clean and staffing is appropriate. He said conditions are expected to improve when the system opens a $155 million medical complex and mental-health facility just west of downtown Raleigh.

Perdue too believes the new facility will help. She blamed prison staffing cuts for creating the environment for the problems. To coincide with the opening of the new prison medical facility, funds to hire "more staff, especially nurses and doctors, were added to the budget for the current fiscal year," she said.

But more than a change of address seems needed. Vicki Smith, executive director of the advocacy group Disability Rights North Carolina, said there are systemic problems in how N.C. officials provide care for "these very ill prisoners."

If that's so, officials must devote attention to addressing those systemic issues. As state Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-Wilmington, who co-chairs the Senate appropriations committee for Justice and Public Safety, rightly noted: "We punish people for their crimes but... not helping people, not seeing that they get their medication and are treated like human beings is just wrong in every sense of the word."

Read 1686 times Last modified on Wednesday, 21 December 2011 19:57
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