Questions Remain in Death of Mentally Ill North Carolina Inmate; Kept in Solitary for 1,400+ Days
After spending much of his life in the custody of North Carolina (whether in a mental hospital or prison), Timothy Helms died this week of complications from an August 2008 fire in his prison cell at Taylorsville, in the course of which his skull was smashed. Despite conducting an investigation, the prison system remains unable to provide a conclusive account of how he received his injuries. The Charlotte Observer has the story, which highlights — among other things — how solitary confinement, which many psychologists do not hesitate to call to torture, has become a default means of “caring” for the severely mentally ill in our society. From the Observer:
Helms had an IQ of 79 and had attended special-education classes until he dropped out of high school at 16. Diagnosed with multiple psychiatric disorders, he was frequently admitted to state mental health facilities, including Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh.
He was sentenced to three life terms on three counts of second-degree murder following a 1994 drunken-driving collision. Helms, who did not have a driver’s license, claimed a drinking buddy who died in the accident was driving.
Helms’ disabilities made him a difficult inmate for the prison system. In 14 years behind bars, he racked up 125 rules infractions, ranging from threatening to harm staff and possessing a razor to using profanity and hoarding 84 postage stamps.
As punishment, he had spent at least 1,459 days in disciplinary or administrative segregation – terms used in North Carolina to describe solitary confinement. He was let out of his maximum security cell at Alexander Correctional Institution only a few hours each week to shower or go to an outdoor recreation cage.
Correction Department policy is that no inmate should be housed in isolation for more than 60 days in a stretch, a period prisoners commonly refer to as being in “The Hole.” But Helms’ prison records show he was kept in isolation 571 consecutive days.