So pervasive and outrageous was the corruption, so extensive were the details of the Department of Public Safety’s sloppy hiring and training practices, the now very public information sparked an immediate response from NC Republican legislators, who launched an inquiry into the matter. Democratic governor Roy Cooper ordered newly installed DPS Secretary Eric Hooks to take a hard look at the issues.
Secretary Hooks responded, “Where there is misconduct, at any level, it will be addressed.” (http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/special-reports/article154066604.html)
Precisely what does that mean?
Can hiring and training practices of prison staff change enough to impact how they interact with prisoners? The state doesn’t pay guards enough to prevent these economically challenged, undertrained, largely minority people from trying to make easy money to supplement their income, even if it comes at the risk of criminal charges. Like most other crimes though, no one expects to get caught and the sentence is rarely a consideration prior to the criminal act. This is especially true of people in positions of authority. Rather than pay staff the national average, improve training and orientate incarceration back to corrections the DPS becomes more punitive and grossly ineffective at reducing reincarceration.
Will the misconduct be addressed at every level or will the culture of blaming prisoners for the problem persist? The latter is the most likely and in recent months there is evidence to support this, such as the investigation that resulted in the loss of nine volunteers from death row mental health programs. Besides, Secretary Hooks said nothing about improving conditions of confinement or humanizing the nearly 38,000 people imprisoned in North Carolina.
Maybe the Secretary is caught in a political impasse between a governor who is the former attorney general and legislators whose only understanding of criminal justice is the warehousing of human beings. Enlightened corrections may be a political nonstarter and it is easier to rely on draconian penalties and laws since this is what the public understands.
Would the misconduct addressed be retroactive and force prison staff with criminal records – who were fired from other prisons – to resign? Not at Central Prison. Brent Soucier was named in the N & O series because he was fired from a Vermont prison for assaulting a handcuffed prisoner (http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/special-reports/article153382329.html)
He was later hired by the NCDPS despite this record. In 2013, Sergeant Soucier was named in a federal lawsuit alleging he was one of several officers beating handcuffed inmates out of the view of cameras. Instead of being put on administrative leave Soucier was promoted to the rank of lieutenant and put in charge of Internal Affairs and the Security Risk Group program, which oversees gang affiliations and activities at CP. He would control the very investigations that look into staff abuses of prisoners on Unit-One (CP’s solitary confinement unit) gang activities throughout the prison, and any undue familiarity between staff and prisoners.
Lt. Soucier has been one of a number of administrators who actively seek to be more punitive under the guise of “security”. CP is a maximum security prison so the only tightening that can occur are the security measures staff go through to enter the facility and how they respond to inmates. When pressure comes from the Secretary to do more, yet no money is forthcoming from the legislature, doing more translates into punitive reprisals against prisoners.
This speaks to the idea that:
“…prison, parole and so on [are] stripped of their disciplinary aims –
reeducation, rehabilitation, reintegration – and reoriented toward
strictly punitive goals – detection, apprehension, incapacitation…
a nightmare version of bureaucracy that suspends critical reasoning
and tries to establish the most efficient means to achieve an
irrational end” (How to End Mass Incarceration, Roger Lancaster, Jacobin, 8-18-17)
When politicians demand law and order and accountability prison officials increase security as if a cell door can be more closed or a gate more locked. What happens is that any incremental improvement in the conditions of confinement are attacked as a laxness in the punitive mindset that mollycoddles criminals. This occurred when the 1996 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act eliminated Pell Grants for post-secondary education in prison, and it is especially true of rehabilitative programs in places not known for them.
Since the legislative inquiry into prison corruption began in June, several prison officials at CP have sought to undermine mental health programming on death row. This has occurred through an intense focus on and investigation of head psychologist Dr. Peter Kuhns, who he brings into the prison for his volunteer-based programs, and how he spends the mental health department’s budget.
It should be noted that a 2013 legislative mandate requires mental health experts to oversee large populations of prisoners who consume psychotropic medications. (General Assembly of North Carolina, Session 2013, Session Law 2013-360, Senate Bill 402, SECTION 12A.12. G.S. 148‑19(d) ). Kuhn’s oversight of death row was a response to the mandate since there is a significant number of NC death row prisoners who require such medicine. It is for this reason that death row has since been designated a mental health unit along with Unit-One (disciplinary confinement) and Unit-Six (high security mental health, where mentally unstable prisoners who are a danger to themselves and others are confined).
Designating death row a “mental health unit” gave Kuhns the ability to establish therapeutic programs there: creative writing, chess club, art therapy, speech and debate, mindfulness and meditation, Toast Masters, drama and more. While the initial inception of these death row programs was supported by then-warden Carlton Joyner and Deputy Director of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter, the same cannot be said of the Programs Department, whose authority to establish programs had been taken over by Kuhns, and some of CP’s current administrators.
However the investigation of Kuhns began, it was headed by Lt. Soucier, who wanted to know what favors, if any, were being done for inmates on death row and whether they were engaging in undue familiarity with the volunteers in two of the writing programs. There was never any evidence of wrongdoing, merely the external pressure from Secretary Hooks and the internal desire of prison officials to end programs on death row. In other words, the investigation was a punitive response to viable rehabilitative progress in a place of aggressive and persistent oppression.
Soucier began by targeting five death row prisoners who were involved in extensive collaborative writing projects with eight of the volunteers. As one of those prisoners I was placed in solitary confinement at a time when the NCDPS was limiting isolation practices for all but the most egregious violations of policy. Though the point of the investigation was to uncover any misconduct, no such discovery was made. The volunteers were threatened with interrogation-like questioning and, rather than subject themselves to such, decided not to return to the prison on advice from their attorneys. After eight days we were released from Unit-One and Lt. Soucier received a promotion to Unit Manager of CP’s hospital.
With no volunteers to harass, the investigation of Dr. Kuhns intensified after it was taken over by the Office of Special Investigations, a division of the NCDPS. These special investigators began secretly questioning prisoners directly involved with Kuhns’ programs on death row. “Have you received any special favors?” asked one. “Does Dr. Kuhns give you any gifts and tell you to keep it quiet?” asked another. For the duration of the investigation Dr. Kuhns is barred from entering the death row unit.
Whether he can visit a designated mental health unit or not, Kuhns is also involved with two other major strides toward prison reform at CP, which are more likely causes for the intense scrutiny he is under: de-escalation training and the TDU program.
Before there was de-escalation training on Unit-One, whenever guards engaged in a use of force to “subdue” violent or recalcitrant inmates there was no discussion. Now officers are trained to “talk down” hyper-aggressive or upset inmates in an effort to avoid physical confrontations that almost always result in injury. The implementation of de-escalation training dramatically decreased instances of abuse and the need for forcible cell extractions of mentally ill inmates.
The TDU program, a Therapeutic Diversion Unit, is a cell block on Unit-One reserved for prisoners who have spent many years in solitary confinement and would struggle to reintegrate with the general population. The TDU program is a merit-based system that resocializes inmates by incrementally granting privileges for normalized group behavior. This modified housing allows for group therapy and games, outside recreation that doesn’t involve chains and cages, even a television for movies. For many -- guards and prisoners alike – the TDU program was a fantastical idea compared to the status quo. Unit-One was the epitome of violence, chaos and punishment, the most abusive place of confinement in North Carolina. Since the advent of de-escalation training, the TDU program, and the oversight of the Mental Health Department, this no longer holds true.
What is it prison officials fear more – the idea that prison is not supposed to be a place where human beings are degraded and punished in addition to the sentence they receive from the courts; or that they don’t know a better way, creating the same need for education and corrections as their charges? Dr. Kuhns has done us all a favor by reducing the likelihood of injury to staff and prisoners, increasing morale and communication, and demonstrating there are some common sense cost effective approaches to prison reform. Obstructing the growth of enlightened corrections at a time when America struggles to overcome mass incarceration is criminal, and those who engage in such loathsome behavior may be the biggest criminals of all.
SECTION 12A.12. G.S. 148‑19(d) reads as rewritten:
"(d) The Commission for Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Substance Abuse Services shall adopt standards for the delivery of mental health and mental retardation services to inmates in the custody of the Division of Adult Correction of the Department of Public Safety. The Commission for Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Substance Abuse Services shall give the Secretary of Public Safety an opportunity to review and comment on proposed standards prior to promulgation of such standards; however, final authority to determine such standards remains with the Commission. The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services shall designate an agency or agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services to monitor the implementation by the Division of Adult Correction of the Department of Public Safety of these standards and of substance abuse standards adopted by the Division of Adult Correction of the Department of Public Safety. The Secretary of Health and Human Services shall send a written report on the progress which the Division of Adult Correction of the Department of Public Safety has made on the implementation of such standards to the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, and the Speaker of the House. Such reports shall be made on an annual basis beginning January 1, 1978."
HEALTH SERVICES POLICY & PROCEDURE MANUAL
North Carolina Department Of Correction
Division Of Prisons
https://files.nc.gov/ncdps/documents/files/txi14.pdf Health Services Policy and Procedure Manual, North Carolina Department of Public Safety, Division of Adult Corrections and Juvenile Justice, Section: Care and Treatment of Patient-Adult Residential Treatment Services, Subject: Adult Residential Treatment Services, Effective date: September 2013, Supercedes Date: N/A