- Illustration by Christopher Williams
Last spring, Devon Davis says, he was riding in the passenger seat of his early-2000s-model Lexus with a friend when Raleigh police pulled them over.
There was a gun in the vehicle. Davis said it belonged to the driver. The driver said it belonged to Davis. It was a classic case of "he said, he said."
Davis, twenty-six, has a felony record—under state law, he's forbidden to own or possess a firearm. Insisting the weapon wasn't his, Davis says he told the officer to check for his fingerprints on it. But Davis says he was frazzled. He resisted arrest. His car was impounded, and he was escorted to Wake County Detention Center.
After several months in jail, Davis was convicted of the firearms charge and sent to Central Prison in Raleigh, where from 2012–15 he'd spent 1,001 days in solitary confinement, alone in a cell. During this incarceration—he was convicted of trying to steal a car and then, while on probation, was charged with attempted burglary—his mental health problems got worse.
Davis, who's been diagnosed with a number of mental health issues, including ADHD, bipolar disorder, and a psychotic disorder, was immediately placed back into solitary confinement. Prison officials call it "restrictive" or "segregated" housing, but it equates to an inmate spending twenty-two to twenty-four hours per day alone in a cell roughly the size of a parking space.
Those familiar with prison procedures say returning inmates are often placed in the same custody level they left. For Davis, this meant solitary, where he remained for 154 days before being moved to the regular prison population.
This is a long time, particularly for an inmate who at the time had no infractions, such as fighting, spitting, cursing, or disobeying orders. (Since late March, he's received two citations for "disobeying orders" and "profane language," according to prison records.) Additionally, keeping Davis in solitary for an extended time violated a 2016 prison policy that prohibits housing inmates with mental illness in restrictive housing for more than thirty days.
But here's where it gets tricky: Davis was not put on the prison's mental health caseload—meaning the inmate has been identified as having a mental health issue and is receiving medication for it—even though he received psychiatric care during most of his previous three-year incarceration.
Davis says he asked for his mental health medication—twice —but had to wait to get it. According to Davis's medical records, which were obtained by Disability Rights NC senior attorney Susan Pollitt, from the time Davis entered Central Prison on October 13, 2017, until February 2—113 days—he went without medication.
Denying an inmate appropriate medical care is a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, according to Chris Brook, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.
Davis didn't leave solitary confinement until March 15—after a lawyer and a reporter began inquiring about him.
According to other attorneys who work with inmates, Davis isn't the only prisoner with a mental illness being held in solitary for more than a month.
Davis has a long history of mental illness coupled with a difficult upbringing.
He was born with cocaine in his system, which can cause long-term developmental problems. After developing auditory hallucinations at age six, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
Davis's mother and father each did time in prison, and a court ultimately terminated their parental rights. Davis bounced between group homes and foster care. His court records detail eleven psychological evaluations throughout his childhood.
Davis entered a state prison before he was twenty-one, where he endured three years of solitary confinement, which experts say can exacerbate the symptoms of mental illness.
During Davis's first incarceration, prison records say, he acted out, yelled, and cursed at staff. He exhibited signs of depression and paranoia, including a time when he smeared feces in his cell, telling staff that voices told him to do it.
"It just did something to me," Davis said in 2015 after he was released from his first incarceration. "You stay back there for so long, you start to get comfortable. As you start to get comfortable, it does something to you physically. It does something to you mentally. Now you don't know if you're coming or going. Walls close in on you. You so anxious to get out your room, but they [the guards] don't want you to come out. They take your [recreation time], saying that you're asleep."
During his first incarceration, Davis tried to hurt himself multiple times and was placed on suicide watch, records show.
Shortly after a story about Davis ran in The News & Observer in 2016, the state Department of Public Safety announced a new suicide prevention program with updated health policies. A number of the changes involved better monitoring and evaluation of inmates with a mental health diagnosis.
One of the program's goals is to keep inmates with mental illnesses out of solitary confinement.
"As placement of a mentally ill inmate in restrictive housing is discouraged and shall take place only as a last resort, such placement should be limited to 30 days in one calendar year," the policy states.
Over the last several years, there has been an effort across the nation—and in North Carolina—to decrease or eliminate the use of solitary confinement in jails and prisons.
World leaders have compared the use of solitary confinement to torture. And for decades, researchers have documented the detrimental psychological effects that prolonged isolation has on a person's mental health.
In North Carolina, prison officials even sought outside help from the Vera Institute of Justice to reduce their use of solitary confinement for disciplinary purposes. When the suicide prevention policies went into effect in 2016, advocates said "it was a step in the right direction."
But today, people like Davis are still being sent to solitary.
In the last five months, prison officials reported five North Carolina inmates died by suicide. At least two were in restrictive housing at the time of death.
NC Prisoner Legal Services, a group of lawyers who work doing indigent services for the state court system, continues to receive letters from inmates with diagnosed mental illnesses who have been kept in segregation longer than a month, says Michele Luecking-Sunman, PLS civil litigation managing attorney. However, she has not personally come across a case like Davis's, where prison staff withheld psychiatric medication and kept an inmate in solitary.
"What we do see all the time are people who have very clear mental health issues who are being put in segregation," Luecking-Sunman says.
Gary Junker, the director of behavioral health for the Department of Public Safety Division of Prisons, says that inmates with a diagnosed mental illness are assessed when entering a restrictive housing unit and at thirty-day intervals afterward.
"A decision to maintain an offender in restrictive housing is based on many factors including current mental status, adjustment to restrictive housing, as well as consideration for institutional safety and security," Junker says in a written statement. "In some instances, an offender with a mental illness refuses to leave restrictive housing. If the multidisciplinary team determines that removing an offender from restrictive housing may place others at risk for assault or injury, or would potentially disrupt the orderly running of the institution, a decision can be made to continue the offender's housing status."
State prison officials would not say how many inmates are receiving medication for mental health problems and are also being held in restrictive housing.
One problem the prison faces is a lack of resources to properly treat all inmates with mental illness, says PLS director Mary Pollard.
Brook seconds that, saying DPS needs "improved and more robust mental health screening when someone comes into prison, so that prisoners with mental illness do not fall through the cracks." Brook says there needs to be "ironclad rules" to make sure inmates aren't sent to segregation due to behavior caused by their mental illness.
The state ACLU also receives complaints from inmates who say they're not receiving proper medical care, both for physical and mental health issues.
However, Brook says mental illness is often seen as "less serious" than physical ailments. "We would all agree that it's their responsibility to treat a prisoner who is suffering from a heart attack," he says. "The same logic says that we need to be treating folks who are incarcerated who suffer from mental illness."
Brook emphasizes that an inmate's medical issues don't just exist inside prison walls.
"I think Mr. Davis's case makes this plain as well—this is not just an 'inside the walls' issue," Brook says. "We need better mental health treatment options in our communities, especially for those who have just been released from prison."
North Carolina prisons currently house over 36,500 inmates. And 95 percent of these inmates will eventually return to society. Every year, about twenty-four thousand prisoners are released at the end of their respective sentences.
In the past decade, there has been a 60 percent increase in the number of inmates diagnosed with chronic illnesses, and a 65 percent increase in those diagnosed with mental illnesses, according to Joe Prater, DPS secretary of administration for adult corrections and juvenile justice. About 17 percent of the total prison population has been diagnosed with mental health issues, and the majority of inmates with these illnesses have more than one diagnosis.
The State Reentry Council Collaborative, established by lawmakers last year, comprises work groups that look at issues that affect formerly incarcerated people such as unemployment, transportation, mental health, and substance abuse.
These are some of the things Davis dealt with when he left prison the first time. He struggled to find housing and a job. He was homeless for a time. He went on and off his mental health medications and frequently missed appointments.
Right now, Davis is happy to be in the prison's "regular population." His mood is improving, and he's smiling again. Back on his medications, Davis describes himself as "a walking pharmacy."
Now that he's out of solitary, Davis is part of a prison work program, which gives him credits toward his overall sentence time. From 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., he serves on the prison's hospital janitorial staff, sweeping floors, wiping windows, and emptying trash cans.
Davis says he's just keeping his head down and riding out his sentence. He vows to stay away from the bad crowd that landed him in prison the second time around.
And this week, he'll be out.
A version of this story originally appeared on the nonprofit news site NC Health News. To support its journalism, please visit northcarolinahealthnews.org.