[Ppnews] What life is like in solitary confinement at North Carolina’s Central Prison

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Nov 1 11:31:41 EDT 2012

  What life is like in solitary confinement at North Carolina’s
  Central Prison

November 1, 2012

 From The Indy 

by Billy Ball 

An excerpt from Central Prison inmate Chris McBride’s letter to /Indy 
Week/, dated July 4, 2012:

*“Solitary confinement is hell. I agree with the public—it is a form of 
torture. It is a tiny cell about 6 feet by 8 feet. It has a steel 
toilet, with a sink built in the top. There is a steel bed, with an 
extremely thin mattress. There is a small shelf to put your things, and 
a very small little desk hanging off the wall, but no chair. There is a 
window, that is about 5 inches wide and about 4 feet tall, but you can’t 
see out of it. It’s fog/clouded glass. Plus it’s covered by steel with 
little holes in it. The door window is the same. The light stays on 24 
hours a day. At 11 p.m.–6 a.m., a smaller light comes on but it’s still 

*“We are in this cell 23 hours a day. We are allowed to come out for 
recreation five times a week for one hour. The rec is a cage. They just 
stick us in a little cage and we can walk around. That’s it. We are only 
allowed to take three showers a week. Only three! And we can only take 5 
minutes. If we are lucky, we get 10 minutes.*

*“So if you add up five 1-hour recs, and three 10-minute showers, that’s 
5½ hours. Let’s round that up to 6 hours. There’s your answer. Out of 
the 168 hours in a week, we are out of our cell 6 hours. If that ain’t a 
form of torture, I don’t know what is.”*

On Dec. 16, 2011, the prisoners stopped working.

As Chris McBride, Inmate No. 0644099 at Central Prison in Raleigh, puts 
it, the hours were too long. The prisoners worked in the kitchen for 
10-hour shifts, seven days a week, without breaks. They were paid 
between 70 cents and $1 per day.

Fifteen inmates at the Raleigh institution refused to return to work, 
McBride writes in a letter to the /Indy/. But when correctional officers 
were called in, roughly half of them changed their mind.

“Only eight inmates stood strong and demanded answers,” says McBride, 
who is from Chapel Hill.

Promised better hours, they returned to their kitchen duties, but within 
15 minutes, correctional officers rounded up the eight.

“Even though we had went back to work without incident,” he says. “No 
force was used, no mace was sprayed. We went. No problem.”

Charged with disobeying orders, the eight were assigned to intensive 
control, or ICON, as North Carolina prison officials call it—for at 
least six months.

ICON is a prison within a prison—long-term solitary confinement by 
another name. Locked away for 23 hours each day, ICON inmates have 
little contact with others, and their visitation is limited. ICON 
inmates may not use the telephone.

McBride’s first six months in ICON were up in July, but officials opted 
to keep the 31-year-old in ICON for another half year, until January 2013.

In North Carolina, 37 inmates served more than six months in ICON in the 
2011–2012 fiscal year, according to state Department of Corrections 
figures. As of Oct. 20, 850 inmates, or about 2.2 percent of the state’s 
general prison population, were sequestered in ICON—twice the national 

Yet statistics offer only a snapshot of the number of inmates in 
solitary confinement on any given day. Prisoners enter and leave. No 
national registry of inmates in solitary exists, in part because prisons 
vary in their definition of what is commonly known in prison-speak as 
“administrative segregation.”

Nonetheless, the United Nations estimates that 25,000 inmates are in 
solitary confinement in the U.S.—many in “supermax” prisons built 
specifically for that purpose. That’s equivalent to about 1 percent of 
the 2.2 million adults incarcerated in 2010, according to U.S. Bureau of 
Justice figures.

That number may be an understatement.

The most recent nationwide count dates back to 2005, when a Bureau of 
Justice census found more than 81,622 inmates in “restricted housing” in 
state and federal facilities. But that may not include strict 
interpretations of isolation because many segregated prisoners are 
housed two to a cell, according to federal Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman 
Traci Billingsley.

Critics contend this type of punishment is brutal, psychological 
torture. It’s also expensive, in some cases costing nearly three times 
more per inmate than for a prisoner in general population. And few 
believe the practice offers real rehabilitation for hardened criminals.

The rise of solitary confinement has led some U.S. and world leaders, 
including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to demand reforms to 
a practice they deem inhumane. Last year, United Nations Special 
Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez called for countries to ban the practice.

“Solitary confinement is a harsh measure which is contrary to 
rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system,” Mendez said.

Buts its defenders, including North Carolina prison officials, claim 
solitary confinement is necessary to control a growing prison population 
and to protect guards and workers from the worst of the worst.

*“If the officers are mad at you, they spit in your food. They lose or 
throw away your mail, amongst other things. And that’s only the 
beginning. The cells are filthy. We hardly ever get to clean them, and 
when we do, we only get to sweep and mop. No toilet brush or nothing. 
Then the medical is ridiculous. An inmate can die in solitary and 
wouldn’t be found for hours because no one even comes by and checks on 
us. If we ask to see a nurse, we are ignored. I have seen inmates have 
seizures, faint, as well as try to kill themselves, and the officers pay 
no attention. Then if the inmate tells on the officers, they jump on him 
and beat him. Normal rules don’t apply to solitary. They are supposed 
to, but they don’t.”*

McBride’s extensive criminal record includes convictions for 
embezzlement, assault on a female, felony breaking and entering, 
larceny, drug manufacturing, child abuse, resisting an officer and more. 
“I don’t make excuses. I am who I am,” he writes.

McBride contends he was abandoned by family when he was young. Growing 
up in foster homes, he says he was abused through his childhood and into 
early adulthood.

“I just want you and the public to understand that everyone isn’t 
afforded the advantages and privileges others are,” he writes. 
“Unfortunately, I didn’t start caring until it was [too] late. Now, I 
can’t outrun my record, and no matter what I do, I am judged by it.”

For his repeated crimes, McBride was convicted as a habitual felon in 
Orange County in December 2010 and received a 28-year sentence.

His time in Central Prison has been tumultuous. Since June 2011, he has 
received six infractions for breaking prison rules, including property 
theft, fighting and disobeying orders. McBride says those infractions 
include the alleged theft of a peanut butter packet and a hot dog, as 
well as engaging in a “Chow Hall” scuffle with another inmate.

Fighting, property damage, drug or weapon possession and attempted 
escape: These offenses can land an inmate in six months of ICON. 
Officials refuse to discuss individual cases, but Jennie Lancaster, 
chief deputy secretary for the N.C. Department of Public Safety’s 
Division of Adult Correction, says prison officials can judge an 
inmate’s offense severe enough to compel a second six-month stint in 
ICON. There is no limit on the amount of time an inmate can spend in ICON.

McBride’s lengthy criminal record and his history of clashes with prison 
administration, including the kitchen protest, could have prompted 
officials to keep him in solitary.

Lancaster declines to talk about McBride, although Department of Public 
Safety spokeswoman Pam Walker calls his account of 10-hour kitchen 
shifts “seriously embellished.” Walker says the protest happened three 
days after Warden Ken Lassiter, who assumed his post last year after the 
controversial resignation of the previous warden, ordered kitchen 
workers to remain in the food service area for their entire eight-hour 
shift unless they had permission to leave. The policy was enacted 
because there had been incidents in which inmates ducked work and 
wandered into unauthorized areas of the prison.

Lancaster says that, in general, prisoners recommended for ICON can 
respond to the allegations against them. If they are found mentally 
unable to comprehend their case, they are assigned a mental health 
professional to represent them before the committee.

ICON hearings are not public, and inmates are not allowed to have an 
attorney present.

Following the kitchen protest, McBride appeared before a panel of three 
prison officials, which typically includes correctional officers and 

McBride writes that he pled guilty to his infractions after a prison 
officer told him that he could not win his case. The warden intended to 
make an example of him, he says.

Lancaster says she understands the arguments against solitary 
confinement, but she calls it a “common sense” answer. Some inmates show 
a “chronic inability to conform or get along in the general population,” 
she says. “We have to have rules and policies within the prison that 
keep everybody safe, that keep a stable environment for all the inmates 
and the staff,” she says.

However, the safety of some Central Prison inmates was questioned in an 
Associated Press article last year, after the N.C. Department of 
Corrections issued a blistering report in June 2011 stating that inmates 
with mental illnesses were sometimes isolated for weeks or found alone 
in cells splattered with human waste. Central Prison Warden Gerald 
Branker resigned after the report was released. Prison officials blamed 
media exaggeration for the scandal.

State leaders promised reform at Central Prison after Gov. Bev Perdue 
deemed the report’s findings “unacceptable.” And in July 2012, at least 
nine prisoners began a hunger strike to protest the conditions at 
Central Prison. The hunger strike has ended, Walker said.

Lancaster said state corrections officials have implemented a pilot 
program to help ICON inmates assimilate into the general prison 
population and to address the negative impacts of long-term isolation.

“We want safer, more secure prisons,” she said. “But on the other hand, 
if it’s a fact that [ICON] indeed does cause adverse effects, we need to 
understand that.”

Lancaster bristles at claims that ICON and solitary confinement are 
inhumane and unnecessary. ICON inmates do have exercise and shower hours 
scheduled each week, Lancaster points out, and a nurse checks in on 
prisoners every day. Chaplains also make the rounds.

“I’d be glad to have them spend a couple of days in a prison to see what 
it’s like,” she says to the critics.

Corrections officials denied an /Indy/ request to interview McBride in 
person, so we corresponded via handwritten letters. Administrators also 
denied our requests to visit a solitary cell and interview an ICON 
prisoner in person.

Anthony Graves is upbeat. He’s friendly, quick to return a phone call 
and gracious with his time.

Graves would know about time: He spent 18 years in prison in Texas, at 
least a decade in solitary confinement. In Texas, all death row inmates 
are held in isolation.

He was convicted as an accomplice in the 1992 murder of six people, 
including four children, and sentenced to death. In 2010, he was 
released after prosecutors acknowledged what Graves’ family and several 
college journalists had been saying for years: No forensic evidence tied 
Graves to the Somerville, Texas, murders—and the case relied on the 
testimony of the actual killer.

That person, Robert Earl Carter, was executed in 2000, and before his 
death offered sworn testimony that he lied when he named Graves an 
accomplice. But it took another decade before Graves was finally 
released for a crime the state now says he did not commit.

Graves was 26 when he entered his cell. Now he’s 47. In between, his 
children grew up without him, and he missed the birth of his grandchildren.

The state of Texas paid Graves $1.4 million as compensation for his 
wrongful imprisonment, although not without a bitter legal battle.

During his incarceration, Graves languished in a 8-by-6-foot cell much 
like McBride’s. Equipped with a single window, Graves could glimpse the 
sky if he stood on his bed. The cell was equipped with a shelf large 
enough for a radio or a typewriter.

Graves told the /Indy/ his time in solitary changed him. It’s difficult 
for him to socialize, and he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I have emotional breakdowns and don’t even understand why,” he said. “I 
can be out in the world around millions of people and still feel alone.”

He spent the interminable hours writing pleas for help, a ritual that he 
credits with preserving his sanity.

“I was probably unique because I knew every morning that I woke up that 
I was innocent,” he says. “I didn’t have time to think about what was 
going on around me. If I was to think in those terms, I probably would 
have lost my mind. Every year, those walls get a little closer around 
you. You start feeling claustrophobic.”

But Graves said he never lost hope, even as the years passed and his 
appeals failed.

“That would have meant I understood what was happening in my life,” he 
said. “Don’t get me wrong, I was down. My thing is, I was wondering when 
is this ever going to end? Am I going to walk out on my own or am I 
going to go out in a box?”

Graves, who testified on solitary confinement before a U.S. Senate 
subcommittee in June, calls his time in solitary “the worst inhumane 
treatment that a man can give another man.”

American prisons need fundamental reforms, Graves says, starting with 
rehabilitation. Provide education for prisoners, he says, so they are 
high-functioning members of society when they are released. Solitary 
confinement falls far short of that goal, according to Graves.

“We don’t seem to be that serious about reforming people,” said Graves. 
“All we want to do is punish them.”

“Do you believe you could live in a box like that 23 hours a day, a 
person who goes in normal, and it wouldn’t have any negative impact on you?”

In June, Sen. Durbin grilled Charles Samuels Jr., director for the 
Federal Bureau of Prisons, during a heated meeting of the Senate 
Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.

A life-size replica of an isolation cell, spare and gray, sat in the 
corner of the committee room.

It was a landmark hearing for solitary confinement opponents, who note 
Durbin’s subcommittee was one of the first to consider prison reform as 
a human rights issue.

Samuels—who reported roughly 7 percent, or more than 15,000, federal 
inmates are held in isolation—later conceded prolonged isolation poses 
risks for prisoners. It’s not the “preferred option,” he acknowledged.

Durbin, who opposes solitary confinement, said the federal prison system 
needs policy changes to address this type of punishment. “We can have a 
just society, and we can be humane in the process,” Durbin said. “We can 
punish wrongdoers, and they should be punished under our system of 
justice, but we don’t have to cross that line.”

The number of prisoners being sent to solitary confinement skyrocketed 
in recent decades. A report from the national law think tank Vera 
Institute of Justice indicated the number of prisoners held in 
segregation surged 40 percent between 1995 and 2000. In 2004, more than 
40 states operated a form of supermax housing. North Carolina does not 
run a supermax, although it does operate a similar “maximum control” 
unit in a Butner institution, Walker said.

Prison leaders often argue isolated confinement is used for the most 
dangerous inmates who cannot assimilate into the general prison 
population. But critics say it’s cases like McBride and his fellow 
kitchen protesters that are the norm: using prolonged isolation as a 
method of control or punishment for relatively minor prison offenses.

In one notable case in Virginia, Rastafarian inmates were sent into 
isolation because they refused—on religious grounds—to shave and cut 
their hair in compliance with a 1999 policy change. Some spent years in 
isolation, and at least one man spent a decade in solitary confinement.

Stephen Soldz, an influential Massachusetts clinical psychologist and 
solitary confinement expert, says the “vast majority” of segregated 
prisoners are isolated as a disciplinary measure, not because they are a 
threat to other inmates or prison staff.

Soldz, who served as a consultant in Guantanamo Bay trials, generated 
media attention in 2007 when he called for the American Psychological 
Association to forbid its members from participating in interrogations 
that included the use of prolonged solitary confinement. The APA later 
issued a resolution stating its opposition to torture.

Today, Soldz remains a staunch opponent of solitary confinement.

“There’s no doubt from the research literature and clinical experience 
that solitary long-term and not so long-term causes distress, 
depression, anxiety and more severe conditions in a number of cases,” 
Soldz says. “People have become suicidal or suffer hallucinations.”

Soldz says the practice is especially dangerous in a prison, where many 
inmates are already mentally ill.

“You’ve got mentally ill people, you put them in a context which causes 
mental illness in normal people,” he says. “So it exacerbates the 
illness. They’re less in control, so it causes the situation to keep 
them in isolation. It’s so barbaric.”

Mental illness is a key component of the solitary confinement debate. A 
2006 U.S. Department of Justice study reported 56 percent of inmates in 
state prisons have some form of mental illness. In federal prisons, it 
was 45 percent; 64 percent in local jails.

Terry Kupers, a California psychiatrist and author of the 1999 book 
/Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars and What We Must 
Do About It/, says the research shows a troubling problem for an already 
troubled population.

“Solitary causes psychological damage,” Kupers said. “And it causes 
damage to ordinary people who have a good, strong ego, but if someone is 
vulnerable to psychological illness, it causes greater damage.”

In a statement to Durbin’s Senate subcommittee this year, Kupers said 
most research clearly shows isolated inmates are far more prone to 
anxiety, paranoia, delusions, depression, nervous breakdowns and 
suicidal thoughts.

According to Kupers, national data show that half of prison suicides 
occur among the 3 to 8 percent of the prison population that is in 
segregated or isolated cells.

However, a controversial 2010 study of long-term segregation in Colorado 
prisons found no evidence that solitary confinement is detrimental to an 
inmate’s mental health. Most surprising, the study reported some 
improvement in segregated prisoners.

Critics note that one of the study’s principal authors, Maureen O’Keefe, 
worked for the Colorado Department of Corrections. The study also relied 
on self-reports, rather than professional psychological assessments, 
from prisoners whose primary motivation might be to convince prison 
officials that they are mentally fit to return to the general prison 

Meanwhile, critics say solitary confinement is also ineffective in 
rehabilitating inmates. A 2007 study by University of Washington 
researchers found supermax prisoners released directly into the 
community were more likely to re-offend than their general population 

Kupers said many in his profession believe the key to behavioral change 
lies in offering positive rewards for good behavior rather than 
punishment for misbehavior.

“Solitary confinement is the antithesis of rehabilitation,” Kupers said.

If the human rights aspects of solitary confinement don’t prompt public 
officials to change their policies, the fiscal realities may.

Durbin points out the costs of solitary confinement in an Illinois 
supermax are a staggering $60,000 per inmate annually compared to 
$22,000 for an inmate in the general population.

In North Carolina, the annual cost of “close” custody, which includes 
ICON inmates and other maximum-security prisoners, was $34,153 per 
inmate at the end of the 2010–2011 fiscal year, the most recent data 
available. The bulk of North Carolina’s prisoners are held in “medium” 
custody, which cost $28,214 per inmate last fiscal year.

“I would prefer that the anti-rehabilitative effect and increased 
recidivism rate would motivate legislators to consider closing isolation 
or supermax units,” Kupers said. “But if it turns out it’s the expense 
that motivates them, that’s OK, too.”

Chris McBride’s story is incomplete. According to prison records, he’s 
not likely to leave prison until 2037. He will be 56.

But, provided he has no additional infractions, McBride is expected to 
leave his isolation cell in January. If the critics are right, McBride 
will be a harder, unstable man. If the proponents are right, McBride 
will be a more disciplined man.

In the meantime, McBride says he will spend his hours sleeping, reading 
or writing. There’s nothing else to do.

*“The public should care about this because we are all human. No, they 
may not think about prison life on a daily basis, but in the blink of an 
eye, they could be part of it. I want the public to know about the 
inhumane conditions we as inmates have to deal with. I want them to know 
about the mental and physical abuse we have to endure on a daily basis. 
Just because we are in prison doesn’t make us any less human. There are 
plenty of criminals not locked up. Look at our government. We still have 
feelings, and deserve to be treated as people. Not animals.”*

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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