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News brief became catalyst for series on mental health, solitary confinement Date: 07/17/17

Taylor Knopf

By Taylor Knopf

I once assumed that the use of solitary confinement was necessary and reserved for the worst of the worst. But after a year of covering North Carolina’s use of solitary confinement and the fate of mentally ill inmates, I discovered that on any given day, one of every seven prisoners was in solitary confinement in North Carolina. Many were put in solitary as a disciplinary action for infractions as minor as spitting or cursing.

What I learned while covering this story became a two-part series called “Solitary to the Streets” about one man who embodied the reality of the broken mental health and criminal justice systems.

In March 2015, I had been at The News & Observer a few weeks when a press release came across the metro desk announcing that the Vera Institute of Justice would help the North Carolina Department of Public Safety to reduce its use of solitary confinement of prisoners. The metro editor wanted a brief, but I decided to make a few more calls.

While writing that initial story, I found a lot of information about the negative mental health effects of solitary confinement, and attended a talk at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill called “Solitary Confinement as Torture.”

By the summer of 2015, I was reporting on the North Carolina General Assembly full time. However, I continued exchanging letters with inmates in solitary confinement. I took a tour of a prison, and even found a way to visit an inmate in solitary, despite the prison system’s policy forbidding media interviews with inmates in solitary confinement.

I zeroed in on the issue of people with severe mental illnesses who are kept in cells the size of a parking space. This practice exacerbated their psychotic symptoms. Advocacy groups wrote a letter urging the U.S. Department of Justice to launch an official investigation into North Carolina’s use of solitary confinement, particularly for those with mental illness.

During the state budget cycle, I noticed that the prison system wanted $24 million in additional funding to treat inmates with mental illnesses. The house cut it to $12.1 million. The senate went further and cut it to $6.4 million. After I wrote a story about the proposed cuts, the legislature allocated $12 million.

Putting a face on the story

On Sept. 29, 2015, I met Devon Davis the day he was released from prison – after 1,001 days in solitary confinement. Davis has a number of psychotic disorders and was the perfect example of a face to illustrate the statistics.

At the time, the N&O editors were uninterested in my prison reporting. But as long as I kept up my daily stories, they didn’t seem to mind if I worked on it. Whenever I had a story ready to publish, I would find someone to edit it. I relied heavily on the expertise of N&O investigative reporter Joseph Neff. He put me in contact with a lawyer who specializes in working with those who have disabilities who, in turn, referred me to Davis’ mother while he was still in prison.

Neff also helped me work through the Department of Public Safety’s attempts to prevent the release of data on inmates kept in solitary. The spokesmen for DPS played hardball, often saying the department didn’t collect the data I was seeking. To get what I needed, I learned to use the department’s codes to ask for what I wanted. For example, the prison system doesn’t have a classification for “solitary confinement.” It uses housing status such as HCON (high security maximum control) and ICON (intensive control). Using these housing classifications, the department keeps prisoners in cells for 23 to 24 hours a day. To get the number of prisoners with mental illness kept in solitary confinement, I would ask for prisoners on a “mental health caseload” kept in the various restrictive housing units.

Davis was kept in restrictive housing all but 30 days of his prison sentence. When his time was up, he was released directly from his solitary cell.

I followed Davis for eight months as he struggled to adjust to his new life. He applied for jobs, but didn’t get one. He went on and off of his medications. Relationships with family proved difficult to renew, and he spent a number of nights in a homeless shelter.

I helped Davis file for his prison records which took months to get. DPS either lost the request or said the records were delivered when they were not. Eventually, Davis got the records when I went with him to a probation visit.

Nothing was easy with this story. I sifted through thousands of paper documents of mundane prison activity to find the records that were important to Davis’ mental health. As I got to know Davis, Neff warned me that following him would be difficult. “Poverty is chaos,” Neff said. And he was right.

Every few days Davis had a new phone number and was sleeping in a new place. In subfreezing weather, we met outside of bus stops and homeless shelters. If he was taking his medication, he was cooperative. He would answer questions and let photographer Travis Long — who would sometimes join us — actually do his job. If he was off of his meds, there was no predicting his behavior. He frequently showed up at my office wanting help with life’s challenges or just needing to vent about the problems he faced.

At this point, I realized I needed an editor who could devote time to my story. My mentor suggested the investigative team’s editor, Steve Riley. He took on my story and helped me to structure it into a miniseries. Before publication, we went through the story line by line. Riley had me show supporting documents for every fact and claim I made. It was the most thorough editing I’ve ever experienced. By the end, I was confident in every single word.

When the N&O published the series in May 2016, it was picked up by more than 20 news publications. During the year I spent reporting on mental health and solitary confinement, the prison system cut back significantly on its use of solitary. Writing this series also helped me get my current job reporting on mental health for North Carolina Health News.

Taylor Knopf(@tayknopf ) is a reporter for North Carolina Health News where she writes about mental health.