More money for prisons, plus insubordinate magistrates | News Feature | Indy Week
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More money for prisons, plus insubordinate magistrates 

One year after a mentally ill inmate in solitary confinement died of dehydration, North Carolina prison officials say they want to reform the system, at a cost of more than $20 million.

In an interview with the INDY, N.C. Department of Public Safety Secretary Frank Perry said his agency has been working with Gov. Pat McCrory to secure more funding.

After Michael Kerr's death, McCrory's office described the state prisons as a "broken culture" in need of reform. McCrory is expected to present his proposed budget for the state this week. And while a McCrory spokesman says the governor won't discuss DPS funding in advance, Perry says state officials are receptive.

"I've had an edge about me since the death of Mr. Kerr," Perry says. "I keep asking, 'Are we doing enough?' I think we are."

As the INDY reported last year, Kerr had been suffering from schizoaffective disorder. He went for days without food, water or treatment before prison staff attempted to transfer him from Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville to Central Prison in Raleigh, the system's primary mental health and medical facility for male inmates. Kerr died during the transfer.

According to multiple sources familiar with the investigation, Kerr, who had been handcuffed, was left covered in his own feces in Alexander Correctional. His family also claimed that Kerr appeared to have been beaten and starved.

DPS fired nine prison workers and reassigned dozens of others. A federal grand jury, the State Bureau of Investigation and the nonprofit Disability Rights N.C. also launched investigations.

DPS' funding request includes 400 new positions to staff new "therapeutic communities" in some prisons, where inmates suffering from severe mental illness would be regularly monitored and provided with mental health treatment.

DPS is also asking for $55 million in pay raises for the state's 11,000 correctional officers, who earn around $30,000 a year. Perry says he believes raises will improve care and attract quality personnel. "It lifts the entire ship," he says. "We're being paid more, so more is expected."

Among the other reforms, officials held crisis intervention training with 1,000 staff members across the state, and convened a task force to develop a policy on the use of solitary confinement on mentally ill prisoners.

Prison officials have long argued that solitary confinement, which keeps a prisoner in isolation 23 hours a day, is safer for severely mentally ill prisoners and could even be therapeutic. However, many mental health professionals say the isolation might worsen a prisoner's condition.

The state task force, which includes leaders at Disability Rights and the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, has no timeline for completing its recommendations.

"It's the equivalent of trying to turn the Titanic in the middle of the icebergs," says Nami-NC Executive Director Jack Register.

Rep. Pat Hurley, a five-term Republican from Randolph County, co-chairs the House budget committee for DPS. She says lawmakers will have to consider increased funding in the prisons.

"We in justice and public safety don't believe we can be cut anymore. We've cut to the bone," Hurley says. "For anyone to die in our prisons is hard. It's hard on all of us. We don't want that to happen again."

Hurley added that prisons should eliminate solitary confinement. "Twenty-three hours a day in solitary, day after day, it's just wrong." —Billy Ball

Billy Ball can be reached at bball@indyweek.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_k_ball.

HOUSE TO VOTE ON MAGISTRATES AND SAME-SEX MARRIAGE

Try an experiment: Go to work tomorrow and refuse to do part of your job—selling hamburgers if you're Hindu, aspirin if you're a Christian Scientist, condoms if you're Catholic—based on your religious beliefs. See how long you stay employed.

But under Senate Bill 2, magistrates and registers of deeds who have a "sincerely held religious objection" to same-sex marriage can refuse to fulfill that part of their job—and still receive their taxpayer-funded salaries.

The bill passed the Senate last week 32–16. Two Republicans, John Alexander of Wake County and Jeff Tarte of Mecklenburg voted against it, while two Democrats, Sens. Ben Clark of Hoke and Joel Ford of Mecklenburg voted for it.

The House could vote on SB 2 this week.

SB 2 will appease a few at the expense of many. Just seven of the 700 magistrates—1 percent—working in North Carolina will be affected by the bill. If the state has to defend itself in court on constitutional challenges, North Carolina taxpayers will help pay the legal tab. It will burden other county magistrates with extra work. Couples could have to wait months before they can marry, and then could be discriminated against on a government employee's whim.

A "sincerely held religious objection" is not defined in the bill. There are no provisions that would prevent discrimination based on race, or faith or any protected class or arbitrary factor. An employee would simply tell his or her boss, "I don't feel like marrying anyone for a while."

As opponents such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Equality NC, the state's largest LGBT-advocacy group, point out, the bill could open the door to other situations in which government employees cite religious objections to performing aspects of their jobs they find distasteful.

(Catholics, for example, are not supposed to remarry after divorce. Could a Catholic magistrate refuse to perform a marriage ceremony for Spouses No. 2? Or No. 3?)

"What is the next category of government officials that will refuse to perform a job?" asked Sarah Preston, policy director of the ACLU North Carolina, at a Senate committee meeting last week.

State Sen. Floyd McKissick (D-Durham), opposed the bill. "It's distasteful, offensive and bad public policy," he said during last week's debate. "The Fourth Circuit court has spoken. We should not be using our energy to circumvent the law. We want to be on the right side of history. Put your personal objections aside."

Sen. Buck Newton, a Republican co-sponsor of SB 2 acknowledged that it was written in response to the Fourth Circuit Court's decision last October that legalized same-sex marriage in North Carolina. "Marriage was created by God between a man and a woman," Newton said, calling same-sex marriage "a newly-discovered idea of what marriage is."

Religious exemption bills clearly aimed at the gay and lesbian community have been introduced in more than 20 states since the beginning of the year, according to the ACLU. In the last week, religious refusal bills were defeated in South Dakota and Arkansas, but they advanced in Indiana. This month bills were introduced in the Georgia and West Virginia senates and in the Michigan and Utah houses.

Despite his own thinly veiled homophobia, Newton insisted the bill is not discriminatory, adding that he is "disgusted" by comparisons of LGBT and racial discrimination.

"You're born into your race," Newton said. "I don't know about sexual orientation." —Jane Porter

Jane Porter is an INDY staff writer. Reach her at jporter@indyweek.com

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