by Billy Ball
In the days to come, expect detractors on both sides when it comes to Gov. Pat McCrory's proposed budget, which he announced last week. But as far as mental health care in North Carolina prisons, a system McCrory called a "broken culture" last year, the governor appears willing to spend on reforms.
Over the next two years, the governor's spending plan allocates $17.8 million for improved mental health services in the state's prisons, including the creation of "therapy halls" in eight high security prisons where mentally ill inmates would be regularly monitored and treated.
McCrory also proposes spending another $6.6 million over two years to fully staff the mental health unit at Central Prison, the state prison system's primary mental health facility for male inmates. For those seeking improvement in the prison system's mental health services, staffing shortfalls are a common complaint. McCrory's plan would add 66 new positions at the prison.
McCrory's budget plan funds prison reforms announced after the Indy reported the death of inmate Michael Kerr last year. Kerr, who had been suffering from a mental illness, died of dehydration after spending more than a month in solitary confinement at a prison in Taylorsville.
Prison leaders have announced two dozen reforms after Kerr's death, including new management teams, crisis training for officers and prison staff, and the formation of an ongoing task force of mental health and prison leaders debating a policy on the use of solitary confinement on prisoners with a mental illness.
McCrory would also budget $20.7 million in the second year of the biennial budget in order to give raises to nearly 10,000 correctional officers in the state, although the governor's appropriation falls far short of the $55 million the N.C. Department of Public Safety requested for officer raises.
Nevertheless, DPS Secretary Frank Perry—a McCrory appointee—said he was "appreciative" of the governor's plan in a statement Monday. Two weeks ago, Perry told the Indy that officer pay would be key to the system's reform, indicating that he believed higher pay would allow the system to recruit better officers and keep morale high.
"It lifts the entire ship," Perry said. "We're being paid more, so more is expected."
Jack Register, executive director of the N.C. chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said he was "optimistic" following the governor's proposed budget.
However, Register pointed out that several mental health initiatives budgeted by the governor, including expanded care for children and adolescents, would be contingent this year on the tenuous proceeds from the state's sale of the Dorothea Dix property to the city of Raleigh.
Of course, McCrory's budget will now be debated and, in all likelihood, altered by Republican leadership in the N.C. General Assembly. The governor and lawmakers have differed on spending policies in the past.