This story is published in solidarity with Scalawag’s fourth-annual Abolition Week, highlighting first-hand stories from formerly and currently incarcerated writers.
It was lunchtime at the Mid-State Correctional Facility in Marcy, New York, and the cafeteria was teeming with men chattering as they ate. Craig Waleed was there too, but the 21-year-old inmate wasn’t eating.
September 9, 1990, was the 19th anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising, which left 43 people dead, including 10 correctional officers and prison employees. Every year, some of those incarcerated at Mid-State marked the date with a silent protest, refusing to eat and dumping their food in the trash.
Guards overheard Waleed urging others to join. As Waleed walked out of the hall, two guards handcuffed him and escorted him down a tree-lined walkway to an office building. There, they told him he was being charged with inciting a riot.
This building was new, unlike the more rustic brick structures that surrounded it. The officers took Waleed up several flights of narrow stairs to a landing. They stepped into a concrete hallway lined with cells behind solid iron doors. Each was fitted with skinny vertical windows and a narrow slot to pass food, mail, and books to the people inside.
Waleed would spend the next 30 days alone inside this 16-by-8-foot cell—the size of an average parking space—until an investigation into the protest was completed.
At first, Waleed relished the relative calm of solitary confinement. But after two days under the harsh fluorescent light that only dimmed at night, he started to experience anxiety attacks. “It seemed like the walls were starting to get smaller and tighter,” he said. “It’s almost like a wet, heavy blanket put on you.”
At any time in North Carolina, an estimated 2,500 people are confined in cells roughly the size of Waleed’s, which accounts for nearly 10 percent of the total incarcerated population in the state, according to the Department of Adult Correction (DAC). They are kept in their cells for 22 to 24 hours per day, depending on the terms of their restriction. Limitations are placed on how and when they exercise and shower, and visits from family and friends are also reduced.
Over 90 percent of those currently in solitary confinement in North Carolina will be released back into society, bringing with them the psychological and emotional ramifications of isolation.
It’s been 25 years since Waleed was released from prison, but his days in solitary still haunt him. “It was horrific,” he said. “It was terrifying and at times even just confusing.”
He now lives in Holly Springs, where he works as a project manager for the nonprofit advocacy group Disability Rights North Carolina’s “Unlock the Box” campaign—to make sure incarcerated people in the state don’t endure the suffering of solitary confinement. “That’s what fuels me: my experience of pain, loss, and trauma.”
Unlock the Box’s short-term goal is to change how correctional facilities conduct confinement. Such changes can include allowing people out of their cells more frequently for longer periods of time and providing access to activities like individual or group counseling sessions.
Waleed works to increase support for such changes across the state, through public awareness campaigns and outreach to local communities. He participates in panel discussions and visits classrooms and churches. Waleed also hosts the weekly podcast Prison to Promise and creates TikTok videos about the issue.
“I’m really just trying to gain access to as many communities as I can from coast to coast within North Carolina, explaining to people about the horrors of solitary confinement and encouraging people to do something to end the practice, because … our tax dollars fund this.”
The long-term goal, Waleed said, is to end the practice altogether.
Waleed, who was born Craig Preston Marshall, grew up as the youngest of three siblings raised by a single mother in Rochester, New York. “We were never poor,” he said. “We always had all the physical resources within our house. But I didn’t have close supervision.”
His mother worked full-time for Xerox and often left him in the care of his sister, cousins, and sometimes neighbors. Waleed says one of these cousins and a neighbor sexually assaulted him on multiple occasions. He says that he was exposed to sex, drugs, and alcohol by the age of four.
By his late teens, Waleed already had a reputation for being hard to handle. He’d started to steal, break into houses, and get into fights. “I saw myself as different than the rest of my family,” he said. “I didn’t know what that difference was, but I was more attracted to the negative images of what it meant to be a Black man.”
Waleed said he carried a lot of anger and fear from the abuse he’d suffered as a child. “I’d been harmed, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate what had happened to me,” he said. “I began to act out, playing with fire.”
A few weeks after he turned 18 in 1988, Waleed got into the fight that landed him in Mid-State. He’d given drugs to a woman in exchange for sex, but said she reneged on the agreement after using the drugs and pulled out a knife. When he confronted her and the person with her, Waleed grabbed the knife and stabbed both of them.
Waleed was charged with assault and attempted murder and sentenced to up to 12 years in prison.
In prison, he spent most of his time reading, writing, and discussing politics with some “old-timers”—men who had already been in for years and turned their lives around. These men provided Waleed with his first taste of guidance and mentorship. Some of them had converted to Islam, and they immersed themselves and Waleed in a wide range of literature, including the work of Malcolm X. Through this he received his new surname: Waleed, which means “newborn” in Arabic.
About two years after his first stint in solitary confinement, he was sent in for another 30 days. A fight had broken out in the dormitory, and guards accused him of being involved.
It wasn’t any easier the second time. He began to worry about his mental health. He couldn’t tell the difference between day and night, and started feeling anxious. He began to talk to himself as the voices in his head became audible.
“I felt myself unraveling,” said Waleed.
In North Carolina, about 65 percent of those held in solitary are people of color. Fifty-seven percent are Black.
In the most severe forms of solitary—where people don’t know how long they will stay or what they must do to get out—nearly 75 percent are people of color, and almost 70 percent are Black. That’s far higher than the overall proportion of people of color in the prison population, according to DAC.
In June 2020, Gov. Roy Cooper created the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice in response to the nationwide protests after George Floyd’s murder. The task force developed 125 recommendations to address racial disparities within the criminal justice system and submitted its report to the governor that December.
Recognizing the possible harm of prolonged solitary confinement, the task force recommended implementing multidisciplinary “step-down” plans to transition people out of restrictive housing and back into the general prison population or society.
Other incentives called for removing some of the infractions that can lead to restrictive housing such as the amorphous “general dangerousness,” profane language, and unauthorized tobacco use. To monitor and collect infraction data, the group recommended establishing a committee with experts from the Department of Public Safety (DPS), academia, and community and advocacy groups, including those with lived experience in restrictive housing.
One of its most potent recommendations called for DAC to adopt the Nelson Mandela Rules on solitary confinement. These rules—a set of United Nations standards on the treatment of incarcerated people worldwide—prohibit indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement of more than 22 hours a day for more than 15 consecutive days.
“It was pretty remarkable that the task force made those recommendations,” said Daniel Siegel, the deputy legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina. Despite the recommendations, DAC said in its statement that it cannot conform to the Nelson Mandela Rules, saying that some prisoners are too dangerous and require restriction for more than 15 days.
“I thought there could be some real momentum on this issue and the many other issues that are addressed in the report, but that hasn’t come to fruition,” Siegel noted.
A lack of political will, said Siegel, is impeding progress toward reform; incarcerated people don’t tend to be a politically popular constituency. “It takes political courage to say that we need to reform the prison system because it’s going to make things safer for these people who are entrusted into the state’s care,” Siegel said. “But from where I’m standing, I don’t see that happening right now.”
“The governor’s team initiated this [task force], but once the recommendations came out, there has been no movement,” said Waleed. “It says to me that the lives of incarcerated people don’t matter.”
State Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, a Charlotte Democrat and a member of the governor’s task force, cited the nationwide staffing shortage as a reason implementing some of the recommendations has been slow, including curbing the use of restrictive housing.
Currently, North Carolina’s DAC is experiencing a 40 percent vacancy rate for correctional officers, as well as a 40 percent vacancy rate for nursing staff. The department is also down 25 percent for mental health clinicians.
Mohammed said he does not expect to see a legislative fix, pointing to the unlikely support by the Republican supermajority in the Senate. “I think it’s going to be an uphill battle,” he said. “That means we’ve got to rely on these individual cabinet-level agencies like the Department of Adult Corrections and the leadership of Gov. Cooper and others,” he added.
Much of implementing the task force’s recommendations falls to one man: Todd Ishee, whom Gov. Cooper appointed last September to head DAC. He was confirmed earlier this year to the cabinet-level position.
Ishee, who previously served as North Carolina’s prison commissioner, declined to be interviewed for this story.
A spokesperson for the governor’s office said that although the DAC said it “seeks to minimize the use of restrictive housing,” the practice as it is now “remains a necessary tool to remove those who pose a direct and clear threat to the safety of prison staff and other offenders.”
In a statement, a spokesperson said DAC has several initiatives underway that would help achieve some of the recommendations. It’s currently pursuing American Correctional Association accreditation for all prison facilities, which would bring it closer in line with some of the task force’s recommendations. According to DAC, nine prisons have been fully accredited or are in the process of accreditation, and another 10 are expected to be accredited this year.
However, Keith Acree, a spokesperson for DAC, said that “complete compliance with the Mandela Rules is a difficult and not very realistic goal.”
“There are offenders housed in our prison system who have repeatedly assaulted staff and other inmates inside our prisons, including offenders who have killed staff members,” he said. “To allow these individuals the opportunity to act in this manner again is a risk we cannot afford to take.”
Ishee made a similar comment earlier this year in his confirmation hearing, saying that some prisoners are too dangerous and require restriction for more than 15 days.
Susan Pollitt, a supervising attorney at Disability Rights NC, said Ishee’s comment creates a false impression that only violent people are subjected to solitary confinement.
“It’s misleading, and it’s not an honest discussion or debate about the high use of terrible restrictive housing conditions in North Carolina.”
When Waleed talks about the reality of who ends up in restrictive housing, it’s from experience. “There’s a very small percentage of people in solitary confinement who’ve been found guilty of killing,” he said. Most of the nearly 2,500 prisoners currently restricted are there because DAC’s policy allows the use of solitary confinement for a number of infractions and many lend themselves to broad interpretations from prison staff, Pollitt said. These can include disobedience, using disrespectful language or gestures, and interfering with staff duties.
According to the DPS annual statistical report for 2021, there were 947 infractions for assaults involving weapons, 536 related to staff assaults, and 59 categorized as “other inmate assault.” The largest number of infractions—15,158, or 48 percent of the total—were for “disobeying an order.” Assault on staff or others is considered a Class A infraction, which can carry up to 30 days in restrictive housing. Disobeying an order falls under Class B, which may lead to up to 20 days in restrictive housing, among other sanctions.
Although many prisons deem solitary confinement as necessary to ensure safety among their staff and general population, the practice can wreak havoc on those subjected to the punishment. A 2019 study from researchers at the UNC-Chapel Hill found that incarcerated people who have spent any time in solitary confinement were 24 percent more likely to die in the first year after release compared to those who never experienced solitary confinement. Their risk of dying by suicide increased by 78 percent and from homicide by 54 percent within the first year. They were also 127 percent more likely to die from an opioid overdose in the first two weeks after their release.
W. David Guice, who served as the chief deputy secretary for adult correction and juvenile justice from 2013 to 2017, was widely regarded as reform-minded. Under his leadership, North Carolina made efforts to reduce the number of prisoners with mental illness who were held in isolation for up to 23 hours. He was also meeting regularly with those fighting for reform.
“I met with advocates on a regular basis and many of them knew they had access to me and my staff,” Guice said in an interview. Guice attributed his achievements to the relationships he built as a member of the N.C. House from 2009 to 2012, and to working under both Democratic and Republican governors. He said his positive relationship with former Gov. Pat McCrory, for example, helped secure funding for key reforms.
When he first worked in the prisons as a probation and parole officer, Guice witnessed the failings of a strictly punitive system. “I’m a big advocate for safety, but I just know that these folks are going to be released back in our community sooner than later and we’ve got to find a way to assist them,” Guice said. “If someone is having mental health issues and is locked up in solitary, how is that preparing them for release back into the community?”
Studies have shown that solitary confinement causes severe psychiatric harm and can cause people to develop conditions such as paranoia, panic attacks, or impulse control. If they are already mentally ill, solitary confinement worsens their condition.
According to Disability Rights NC, 13 suicides occurred in North Carolina prisons last year, the highest since it began tracking the incidents. Most of them happened among individuals in solitary confinement, the organization said.
Guice introduced Crisis Intervention Training in correctional facilities, and he enlisted the help of the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research and policy organization, to provide technical assistance in reducing the use of restrictive housing. Under Guice, restrictive housing for incarcerated youth under 18 also received stricter limitations.
In 2016, North Carolina opened therapeutic diversion units in four state prisons, creating alternative facilities for mentally ill people instead of restrictive housing. These units are staffed with nurses, psychiatrists, and social workers.
People in these units are three times less likely to commit disciplinary infractions or require inpatient mental health treatment and four times less likely to commit self-injury, according to a 2021 study conducted in part by the NC Department of Public Safety. Additionally, they are five times less likely to commit severe infractions involving violence or contraband.
There were plans to open another four of these units in 2017. So far, only one has been added due to the staffing shortage, according to DAC. “It’s disappointing,” Guice said.
Waleed ended up spending eight years in prison before he was released on parole in 1997 at age 27. While in prison, he earned an associate’s degree in liberal arts. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in health science with a concentration in substance abuse counseling, and later a master’s degree in counselor education and a doctorate of education.
He relocated from New York to North Carolina at the height of the pandemic in 2020 with his wife and two kids. “We wanted to get away from the gray skies, the cold, and the lack of economic opportunity,” he said.
On a recent Thursday afternoon at a Holly Springs coffee shop, Waleed reflected on his journey. He’s worked as a reentry case manager, a substance abuse counselor, and a college lecturer. He discovered his passion for educating people while he was in prison, where he taught other incarcerated people in the GED program.
“I realized I can teach,” he said. “I started seeing myself as an intellectual, not just as a brute.”
Now 52, Waleed is a motivational speaker, author, and educator. “He is the most credible messenger that I can think of,” said Ann Graham, president and CEO of Reentry Association of WNY and Waleed’s mentor. “There are a lot of people who have done time in prison and talk about it publicly, but I don’t know anybody who talks about it in a more measured, thoughtful, and well-researched manner. It’s not just his own anecdotal ideas; he presents things in a way that’s hard for people who aren’t familiar with the system to ignore.”
While those two 30-day stints in solitary confinement now motivate his work, he still considers himself lucky. Others endure months or even years locked away alone.
“One of the worst cruelties that can be placed upon a human being is to leave them alone for an extended period of time and to forbid them from communicating with other people,” said Waleed.
Ahmed Jallow, a former reporter for the Burlington Times-News, is a freelance writer based in Raleigh.
Scalawag is a journalism and storytelling organization that works in solidarity with oppressed communities in the South to disrupt and shift the narratives that keep power and wealth in the hands of the few. Since 2020, Scalawag has presented Abolition Week as an annual effort to publish work by and about incarcerated writers, journalists, and artists—and to encourage other outlets to do the same. Read more stories and learn more about this year’s theme over at Scalawag.