- Associated Press - Friday, October 3, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Following the death of an inmate from dehydration, advocates for people with mental illness are calling on North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory to authorize emergency measures to fill large numbers of vacant staffing positions in the state prison system.

Disability Rights North Carolina Executive Director Vicki Smith said Friday that the state prison system must fill widespread vacancies among mental health, medical and correctional workers to address deficiencies that contribute to poor treatment. Federal authorities have opened a criminal investigation of the March 12 death of inmate Michael Anthony Kerr, a 54-year-old with schizophrenia who died of thirst after being held in solitary confinement.

Smith said there has been no improvement since a state consultant reported in 2012 that the chronic understaffing has a “very negative impact” on the system’s ability to properly care for inmates with serious mental illnesses.

“It is possible that out of the tragedy of Mr. Kerr’s death something positive will happen for North Carolina and for inmates who suffer with mental illness inside prison,” said Smith, who leads the state’s federally mandated protection and advocacy group for people living with disabilities. “But until the extreme staff vacancy problem is addressed, the necessary improvements will not occur.”

Current numbers were not immediately available, but the 2012 report found that 71 percent of positions for senior psychologists within the prison system were vacant, along with about half of the positions for psychology program managers.

Smith said it can sometimes take more than nine months for the prison system to advertise and fill a vacancy, by which time most qualified applicants have already accepted another job offer. She said the goal should be to fill empty positions within 30 days.

“Currently the bureaucratic and protected hiring process cripples its ability to adequately care for prisoners with mental illness,” Smith said.

McCrory’s spokesman stressed that changes are being made.

“As soon as this tragic and unnecessary incident occurred, Governor McCrory ordered an immediate investigation which resulted in nine employees being fired, two demotions and two resignations,” Josh Ellis, the governor’s communications director, said Friday. “Ongoing changes are being implemented to ensure that a previous broken culture is eliminated and our prisons are safe, accountable and appropriately staffed with trained employees.”

The state Department of Public Safety has adopted some of the recommendations Disability Rights made after Kerr’s death, including bringing in outside consultants to review prison mental health operations statewide. The agency has also created a task force to develop new statewide policies on how inmates with mental illness are treated and housed within the system.

Numerous studies have shown that long-term isolation can have severe effects on the mental well-being of inmates, especially those already suffering from psychiatric disorders.

“As soon as this tragic and unnecessary incident occurred, Governor McCrory ordered an immediate investigation which resulted in nine employees being fired, two demotions and two resignations,” said Josh Ellis, the governor’s communications director. “Ongoing changes are being implemented to ensure that a previous broken culture is eliminated and our prisons are safe, accountable and appropriately staffed with trained employees.”

Deby Dihoff, the executive director of the North Carolina chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the pace of the changes has been too slow. The state prison system should make improvements to seek reaccreditation from the American Correctional Association, which lapsed several years ago, she said.

“There are some positives happening, like the prisons expansion of training for employees to help them understand that many of the behaviors are illness symptoms, not signs of needed disciplinary action,” Dihoff said. “But these changes did not happen fast enough to help Mr. Kerr and his family. Let’s get these changes made now. It’s urgent.”

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Follow Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker at Twitter.com/mbieseck

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