Another Dead Inmate At Central Prison

Deceased Murder Suspect May Have Been Suffering From Mental health Issues When He Died

It seems that the North Carolina Department of Corrections has a harder time keeping mentally ill inmates alive than previously thought.

Edward Watson Campbell, aged 54, was found in his cell after using a bedsheet to hang himself at Central Prison in Raleigh. Campbell, who along with his 21 year old son Eric Alexander Campbell, was accused of murdering a Granville County couple and transporting their bodies across state lines. Campbell and his son were also charged with identity theft and arson in relation to the murders. The man was found with the sheet around his neck and was unresponsive at the scene. Campbell received treatment at the prison hospital before being transported to WakeMed, where attempts to treat him proved unsuccessful.

There is no indication that Edward Campbell or his son were on suicide watch, but according to a statement delivered by a N.C. Department of Public Safety spokesperson, the elder Campbell was being held in Central Prison instead of a county jail because he had “security, medical or mental health issues that the county jail is not equipped to handle.”

This is not the first time in recent months that an inmate has unexpectedly died on the watch of correctional officers at Central Prison. Just over a year ago, a mentally ill inmate named Michael Anthony Kerr died of dehydration in Central Prison after spending 35 days in solitary confinement. In all fairness to Central Prison, Kerr had only been transferred to custody there a mere day before his death, and his condition was likely due to his time at Alexander Correctional Institution. Yet the Department of Correction as a whole bears responsibility for the loss of Kerr’s life and the D.O.C. played its card very close to its chest regarding Kerr’s death – it took six months for the Department to release concrete information about how and why Kerr died. In large part due to this unnecessary loss of life, House Minority Leader Rep. Larry Hall has introduced a bill to the N.C. General Assembly calling for the immediate release of the medical records of any inmate who dies under unusual circumstances to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. I applaud the Representative’s desire for transparency, but the bill itself does little to prevent deaths like Kerr’s from occurring.

I don’t want to imply that any time an inmate dies from something other than natural causes, it is necessarily the fault of prison officials. Sometimes, an inmate may harm themselves or others, and there was no realistic way to have predicted it. However, as we’ve previously discussed, people suffering from mental illness are far more likely to end up in prison than in a state mental health facility, and corrections personnel do not always receive training in how best to deal with inmates suffering from mental illness. Additionally, the stresses of incarceration can exacerbate underlying mental health conditions, which is especially troubling since not all mentally ill inmates receive appropriate treatment for their ailments. We are actively placing sick people into a situation that can make them even sicker.

It’s possible to commit a crime without suffering from a mental illness, of course. Not every person charged with Driving While Impaired or misdemeanor larceny has untreated bipolar disorder or has gone off of their schizophrenia medication. At the same time, however, we can’t ignore the intersection between mental illness and criminal activity. Recognizing this link does not mean that we have to stop investigating and prosecuting crimes committed by the mentally ill, but it does suggest that we should do more to deal with people with mental illnesses who end up in the court system.

Instead of the current hyper-focus on incarceration (which costs our state millions of dollars each year), it would make more sense to increase funding for mental health programs within local communities, or begin to contemplate sentencing certain crimes in different ways. Consider the impact of community corrections, a term that broadly covers all aspects of criminal sentencing that do not include time spent incarcerated. Which do you think would be a more effective way of dealing with a defendant who regularly uses drugs as a means of self-medicating for untreated PTSD: an eight month stint in a state correctional facility, where they may or may not receive treatment for their underlying condition, or being sentenced to supervised probation with regular visits to a mental health provider?

As the North Carolina criminal justice system is at once starving for resources at the same time it is bloated with cases, it would seem to make sense to pursue strategies that reduce recidivism and discourage the overzealous application of incarceration. Unfortunately, our legislators seem addicted to the idea that a “Tough on Crime” stance is the only appropriate attitude to have. I’m hopeful that changes at the federal level may eventually spur a smarter approach to dealing with crime, most especially where it intersects with mental illness, but in the meantime, I’m not holding my breath.