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NC prison staffer sounds alarm on overcrowding, neglect of basic prisoner health and safety


NC prison staffer sounds alarm on overcrowding, neglect of basic prisoner health and safety

Sep 27, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Kelan Lyons
NC prison staffer sounds alarm on overcrowding, neglect of basic prisoner health and safety
Scotland Correctional Institution, one of the largest prisons in North Carolina. Photo: Google Earth

A prison so packed that people on suicide watch are sleeping in 5-by-5-foot holding cages. A disabled Vietnam veteran sent to segregation after his peers attacked him. Incarcerated people spending months in solitary confinement, not because of misconduct inside the prison, but because they’re waiting for a bed to become available elsewhere.

These were among the conditions of confinement described by a prison employee in an email shared with NC Newsline.

“This is not a good situation, and until someone in Raleigh comes down and really pays attention to us, I’m afraid it’s going to get worse, and something is going to break!” the email reads.

The message details the realities of living and working at Scotland Correctional Institution in Laurinburg, one of the state’s largest prisons that holds more than 1,700 men — and a facility where five people died between January and April of this year.

NC Newsline has confirmed that the author of the email works for the prison system, but is withholding their name because they are afraid of retribution.

A spokesperson with the Department of Adult Correction told NC Newsline the agency is “not going to respond to anonymous allegations,” but acknowledged that the staffing shortage detailed in the email is “something we’ve been quite up front about for the past several years, and something that is being experienced by virtually every state corrections agency in the country.”

The allegations are similar to reports received by Disability Rights North Carolina, a Protection and Advocacy System agency that monitors conditions in North Carolina prisons to protect incarcerated people with disabilities, including mental illnesses, traumatic brain injuries and intellectual disabilities.

“The email aligns perfectly with everything that I’ve heard from people in listening sessions, as well as one-on-one conversations in other accounts of people’s experiences in solitary confinement in our state’s prisons,” said Craig Waleed, project manager for the Unlock the Box Campaign Against Solitary Confinement at Disability Rights NC.

Sick and elderly prisoners

The employee wrote in their email that many sick and elderly people imprisoned at Scotland Correctional are eligible for parole, but they “are repeatedly overlooked or denied, keeping that burden on the state and taking up bed space and resources.”

The only people eligible for parole in North Carolina are those who committed their crimes before Oct. 1, 1994. Ben Finholt, director of the Just Sentencing Project at Duke University Law School’s Wilson Center for Science and Justice, said attitudes about parole have changed significantly over the past few decades, and parole denials like those alleged in the email are common.

“Parole just became less favored after the ‘tough on crime’ period of the 1990s,” he said. “The way it happens in North Carolina feels especially like a ‘pass over.’ In many states, you have an actual hearing every time you’re up for parole. But for people who committed their crimes as adults in North Carolina, if they’re getting rejected at each review, all they get is a letter.”

According to the email, some incarcerated people are so ill that granting them medical release is “the only humane solution, but the conditions of medical release are so strict and are worded so that, basically they say if you’ve ever been to prison, you’re disqualified.”

As an example, the employee recounted the experience of Jonie Brendle, a 75-year-old white man more than three decades into a life sentence for second-degree murder. In 1987, in Surry County, Brendle shot his wife and her boyfriend and turned his gun at his son, who returned fire.  The prison employee wrote that Brendle had served four tours in Vietnam and returned to the U.S. “broken.” Brendle’s cousin later told the employee that Brendle called him during the shooting; Brendle had been speaking “military talk” and wasn’t making sense. Brendle ultimately tried to get the police to kill him, the employee said in the email, but he survived, suffering a shattered back and numerous medical issues that still affect him today.

Now Brendle is in a wheelchair and has a catheter bag. He needs an orderly for “every basic need,” the employee wrote.

As NC Newsline has reported, age and disability can make people targets of violence perpetrated by younger, stronger incarcerated people. Brendle was sent to solitary after he was attacked by fellow incarcerated people in August. There, the employee wrote, he had no one to help him shower or change his adult diaper. When employee went to see him, Brendle was “lying in his own filth.” The cell smelled like urine as Brendle babbled to himself.

“Mr. Brendle is a textbook case of who should be granted parole, or at least Medical leave,” the prison staffer wrote. “He served his country. He came home, very likely suffering from PTSD, but nobody talked about it that much back then, or in the ’80s when he committed his crime. He has a family that will look after him.”

And yet he remains imprisoned.

According to state records, Brendle has had one infraction since first going to prison in 1989. It was in 1996, and it wasn’t for a violent act. He had disobeyed an order and was written up.

Parole options remain extremely limited

State legislators expanded the qualifications for medical release in the budget they passed last week. They widened the age range of people who are eligible for the “geriatric” category of that form of supervision, lowering it by a decade to include those age 55 and older. They also changed the policy so that people who are so ill that they pose “no risk or low risk” to public safety are eligible; before, they needed to pose “no” risk.

“It’s a really high bar. It’s an incredible barrier,” said Yvette Garcia Missri, the Wilson Center’s executive director, said of the old standard, but the recent changes will make more people eligible for supervised release.

According to figures provided by the Department of Adult Correction, 59 people were referred for early medical release in 2019. Forty-six wound up being ineligible under state law either because of the severity of their crime or because their medical ailment didn’t rise to the level of eligibility; eight people wound up getting released.

Last year, 67 people were referred for medical release. Three were denied by the Parole Commission, nine were released and six died while their case was pending.

“[Medical release has] always been meant for people who are very ill or frail and who don’t pose this risk, and really need to be out so that they can be with their families and die at home rather than dying in a prison, alone and without their families,” she said.

Reducing the number of people in prison who are seriously ill will save the state a huge amount of money. Garcia Missri said the sickest, oldest people in prison cost the state up to a million dollars a year.

“These are folks that are going to covered by Medicaid or Medicare when they get out of prison,” Garcia Missri said, “and are likely to have to live with their families because of the very strict medical release plans that are necessary in order to be released.”

Brendle likely had been eligible for medical release before the change passed last week, and he remains eligible now.

“There is absolutely a case to be made here,” Garcia Missri said of Brendle.

Facilities that are understaffed and overcrowded

Keeping people like Brendle in prisons leads to overcrowding at facilities like Scotland Correctional, the employee wrote. Scotland Correctional is so beyond its capacity, the employee wrote, that people on suicide watch are sleeping in 5-by-5 “holding cages,” while some others “are on the concrete floor in the rec cages of the restricted housing unit, because we don’t have beds for them.”

Waleed said the prison system uses different names for solitary confinement — segregation, medical custody, protective custody, restrictive housing — but the conditions essentially mean the same thing: someone locked in a cell, alone.

“No contact with other incarcerated people, minimal and low-quality contact with security staff or health care staff,” Waleed said. “Also, limited or lack of opportunity to get out of the room or have showers.”

The employee’s email also said that Scotland Correctional admits people at a higher rate than it releases them. The facility receives people from county jails, the employee wrote. Scotland Correctional puts those new admissions in solitary, where they can wait for months until a bed becomes available.

That also aligns with reports received by Disability Rights NC, said Susan Pollitt, a supervising attorney with the organization.

“We’ve heard of people being placed in solitary confinement cells because a general population bed is not available,” she said. “They’re being held in solitary confinement for no reason at all.” 

It has become so crowded at Scotland Correctional that the prison’s gym as become “a makeshift dorm,” the employee wrote in their email, where 50 people share a single toilet and a single shower.

“It is creating a situation where the offenders — who FAR outnumber us — are becoming increasingly irate, and staff are suffering burnout,” the employee wrote.

“That’s been on our radar for a while,” Pollitt said of the dorm at Scotland.

That overcrowding comes at a time of pervasive staffing shortages of prison employees across North Carolina.

“All the hiring incentives are not enough to get people in and adequately trained at a rate that is comparable to the rate at which people are entering the prison system, while releases are stagnant,” the employee wrote. “I hope you will consider these issues, as nobody else in a position to do anything seems to care. Out of sight, out of mind, right?”

It isn’t new for the prison system to transfer incarcerated people to different facilities, Pollitt said. But what is new is the Department of Adult Correction closing housing units because of systemic understaffing. Staff vacancy rates range from 30% to 70%, depending on the prison, and the prison system is forced to close units to consolidate where people are incarcerated. That means incarcerated people can be sent to prison that aren’t equipped to accommodate people with disabilities.

“For instance, they don’t have shower chairs, they don’t have toilets that they can access,” Pollitt said. “It’s creating crisis situations for people who are living in the prisons and for people who are working in the prisons.”