Unstructured: A Story of Injustice in North Carolina Prisons

Nonfiction by Phillip Vance Smith, II

I thought of Socrates when I saw Mouse’s mugshot plastered on the six a.m. news for killing a prison guard at Bertie Correctional Institution the night before. Socrates, the disgraced scholar who once taught a handful of thinkers that “people who have been harmed are bound to become more unjust.” This simple truth became a cadenced mantra as I contemplated why one of my best friends would brutally murder someone.

I met Mouse in 2004 while housed at Central Prison, a maximum custody facility. Both convicted of first-degree murder in our early twenties, we began serving life without parole, with eons of existence to spare. The only feature distinguishing us was our skin color—his white, mine black. Violent circumstances did not allow us to become good friends then, only years later, after the ills of time had hunched our backs with the weight of hopelessness. Prison officials transferred Mouse to another institution one year into his sentence, after a prisoner assaulted him while he sat on the toilet. I remained at Central Prison for five more years.

We reunited in 2012 at Nash Correctional, a medium custody facility. Years of solitude helped Mouse master his skills as an artist. He spent a lot of time locked in his cell drawing portraits for commission. On sunny days, we took walks around the prison yard and reflected on our once bright futures that were now reduced to dark desolation. During those walks, I discovered his brilliance. Mouse articulated informed opinions on most subjects. We did not always agree, but we listened to each other, and that is sometimes all one can ask of a friend. As we grew closer, my admiration metamorphosed into pity. We had served about the same amount of time, but my life in prison had been much easier because Mouse’s white skin ironically made him a target for bullying and guaranteed that he would never find peace behind prison walls.

While walking one day, Mouse explained that a woman wrote to him claiming to be his sister. After months of correspondence, Mouse learned that he had family living in the Midwest. They were good people, he said. They wanted to hire an attorney to challenge his conviction. None of his other family kept in contact. I envied Mouse’s happiness in those days. A granule of hope acted as manna for the hopeless, and at that point, he had more hope than me. But years later, after Mouse had been transferred again—after another prisoner picked a fight with him—I cringed to see his face on the morning news. No attorney. No release. No hope.

Men gathered around me in a convocation of sleepy eyes and morning breath to gawk at Mouse on television. Some of my friends remembered him from his time at Nash. Mouse was quiet, they declared. Never bothered a soul. Their words painted an accurate picture of him, which depressed me even more. The news story ran a few times, reporting that police had charged Mouse with murder, but newscasters offered no details of his guilt. Because I had served time at numerous prisons, I knew that modern institutions relied on surveillance cameras to monitor activity in cell blocks. Authorities had probably gathered some concrete evidence against him. My shoulders slumped with this realization.

Socrates inquired of Polemarchus, “And what about human beings, comrade; shouldn't we say that, when they are harmed, they become worse with respect to human virtue?”


I imagined causes for the incident, but no matter what I envisioned, I could not find justification. Mouse had already served fifteen years for murder. Although I did not know what created the situation, I refused to take sides. I had witnessed the atrocities of savage officers, but adversity offered no excuse, and I loathed what he had done. What bothered me most was thinking that the hopeless prison environment could have driven him to commit such a crime. Apart from unknown specifics of the incident, my experiences told me that the culture of violence in North Carolina prisons contributed to Mouse’s barbaric actions.

Some believe prisoners deserve to live in violent environments because of the crimes they have committed. They might ask, why should legislators make changes in criminal sentencing to decrease prison violence? Sporadic violence in prison, as in the case of Mouse, surprises no one, yet the severity of recent incidents in North Carolina prisons presents a deviation from the norm. The deaths of five correctional officers in 2017 offers a glimpse into the brutality that is destroying institutions, due in part to North Carolina’s system of structured sentencing which imposes extreme, long-term sentences.

The history of structured sentencing in North Carolina began in the late 1970s when the state prison population hovered at around 15,000—it is now around 67,000. The Fair Sentencing Act of 1979 was passed to increase “truth in sentencing,” meaning that a prisoner should not be released unreasonably early on parole. The act collided with a recent spike in convictions caused by the War on Drugs1. Limited capacity prevented North Carolina prisons from adequately housing the overflowing prison population.2

Officials packed institutions tighter, welding bunk beds three high to keep up with the overflow. In retaliation, prisoners filed federal lawsuits challenging their conditions of confinement. The courts agreed that something needed to change and threatened to commandeer control of prisons if the state did not act. Lawmakers rushed to craft legislation that met the court’s ruling.

Meanwhile, the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission (NCSPAC) crafted a sentencing grid that assigned a mandatory minimum and maximum sentence to every crime. The proposed law proved an easy sell to lawmakers after one brutal incident guaranteed its success: In 1993, a man who was released from prison after serving two years of a six-to-ten-year prison term murdered the father of basketball star Michael Jordan in eastern North Carolina.3 Public outcry following this tragedy gave lawmakers the opportunity to enact the most prejudicial and extreme crime bills: during seven weeks in February and March 1994, legislators introduced over 400 new crime bills. The addition of life without parole and lengthy sentences for habitual felons promised the public that most violent offenders would die in prison for their crimes.

As a result, a prison boom began shortly after the Structured Sentencing Act passed in 1994. New institutions were constructed across the state in rural counties. NCSPAC accurately projected rising levels in prison population and planned how to deal with them twenty years in advance. Based on those predictions, legislators allocated money to gradually increase prison capacity to reflect projected growth.

In the years immediately following the passage of the Structured Sentencing Act, other states regarded North Carolina as a model for prison reform. In 1997, NCSPAC was given the Innovations in American Government award from the Ford Foundation. But what attracted accolades for lawmakers brought desolation to those trapped in the system. The new law operated as intended. However, its success produced another result: the hopelessness of long-term prisoners, victimized by the resulting culture of violence in overpacked and turbulent prisons.


My story in prison did not begin when I met Mouse in 2004. My privileged upbringing thrust me through all-white, upper-middle class communities where the biggest urban crisis was a threat from the homeowner’s association of removing a swing set from the backyard. My mother and stepfather worked as engineers. Their high-paying jobs forced us to move so often that I attended three high schools before my sophomore year. Low self-esteem marred my youth. Unable to fit in with my peers, I dropped out of high school. Years of drug usage and petty crime left me homeless after my parents tired of my antics. At the age of twenty-one, I landed headfirst at Polk Youth Center in September 1999 for a bevy of felonies like larceny and possession of a stolen firearm. Chock-full of nineteen-to-twenty-two-year-olds, Polk Youth Center seemed the most volatile prison in the state. I witnessed a fight every day, and the primary catalyst was poverty.

Inmate work assignments were limited. In spite of most jobs paying only forty-cents-a-day, prisoners coveted them like Corvettes. Not only did jobs help financially, but they also gave a prisoner something to do. Those who did not work sat idly in cell blocks all day and survived off of money provided by family—if they were lucky enough to have a family that cared and was financially able to contribute. Many youthful offenders lacked stable support systems. Underprivileged prisoners either learned how to live with less, or extorted someone else. Bullies chose targets based on apparent weakness. Most targets were slim white men—the prison minority—like my friend Mouse. Sometimes a target fought back for pride. If they lacked confidence to fight, they tied a sock around a Master Lock. They broke off bits of metal from floor fans or bed springs to sharpen into shanks. They snuck up behind the bully and beat him senseless before he could defend himself.

Prison officials encouraged violence by challenging petrified men to confront their bullies instead of removing the victim from harm. Persuading young men to kill each other was a game that Polk prison guards played often. Guards only acted officially in the aftermath by sending offenders to the hole. Sadly, most of those brutal young men were released into society much more violent than when they entered prison.

The prison system provided me with no meaningful opportunities for self-improvement before my projected release date. Required classes like, “Thinking for a Change” proved superficial and were taught by uneducated prison staff who canceled more classes than they instructed. Upon graduation, the prison awarded me with an unaccredited certificate, but I had acquired no job skills.

Released in December 2000, I stumbled back into the same homelessness that had afflicted me before incarceration. I carried less than four dollars in my prison-issued pockets when I walked out a free man. No home. No job. No money. Little hope. I began dealing marijuana and cocaine the day after my release. I needed a home. I needed clothes. And I needed to eat.

Less than ninety days later, I was arrested for first-degree murder following what newspapers dubbed a drug deal gone bad. I could not blame the state for my actions—I alone acted impulsively—but I could point to The Structured Sentencing Act as a major contributor to the desperate situation that carved my path back to prison. After a week-long trial, I was convicted and sentenced to life without parole in March of 2002.

The prison system I returned to a little over a year after leaving had grown worse. Now twenty-three, I was processed at Central Prison, where I met Mouse. General population housed about two hundred men. One-third were serving life without parole and the rest virtually the same, with consecutive sentences amounting to fifty years or more. Black men under the age of thirty accounted for seventy-five percent of the population.

Similar to Polk Youth Center’s population, many prisoners housed in Central Prison came from poor families that could not afford to send money. Likewise, a correctional officer’s low-wage salary made illegal endeavors enticing. These two conditions created a tornado of opportunity that made the drug trade thrive. The main factor was an endless prison term.

North Carolina ramped up prison construction again in the early 2000s —building five close-custody prisons for an average cost of ninety million dollars — and these prisons served as gladiator schools for long-term prisoners, where gangs fought their way to glory. Each faction was determined to control the drug trade, and willing to kill for it too. An unaffiliated hustler either paid a tax to sell drugs or was forced to quit. Rebellion against gang law guaranteed violence.

Many of my friends joined gangs. Affiliation gave depressed men a sense of brotherhood while separated from loved ones.The camaraderie of gang life combated hopelessness by giving prisoners the familial bonds and support they lacked.


To destroy a man, steal his hope, lock him in a cage and tell him that he will never get out, no matter how much he changes. Fine him ten dollars for walking down the hallway with his shirt untucked. Suspend the Pell Grant program, which provides higher education, to keep him ignorant. Remove law libraries from prisons to prevent challenges to the unjust laws and courts that keep him caged. Transfer him three hundred miles from home to stop his family from visiting. Charge him two dollars for a fifteen-minute phone call, but pay him less than three dollars a week. Remind him that he is worthless every single day of his life. Such negative realities are not conducive to positive moral change, and cannot be expected to produce positive people. Though outraged, no prisoner in North Carolina was surprised to see Mouse on the news for murdering a guard. His identity does not matter. Mouse’s actions represent what every prisoner knew was bound to happen.

Yet, I believe changes can be made to combat the violent culture of hopelessness created in North Carolina prisons. First, lawmakers should consider merit-based parole for lifers and virtual lifers. Such an addition could only give prisoners pause before committing a heinous act of violence. Similar changes have already made a positive difference elsewhere. The District of Columbia introduced its Incarceration Reduction Act (IRAA) to great success in three phases: in April 2017, prisoners who were sixteen or seventeen when convicted became eligible for parole after twenty years; in May 2019, that 20-year requirement was shortened to 15; and in August 2019, the law was expanded to include prisoners who were up to age 25 when they were tried and convicted.4 The IRAA presents a common-sense alternative to life without parole that allows a prisoner to work toward release by positive deeds and good behavior. North Carolina’s adoption of such a law would significantly reduce violence by instilling a sense of responsibility and hope in prisoners who otherwise have none.

Lastly, North Carolina should make a serious investment in higher education for prisoners, specifically liberal arts bachelor’s degrees that teach critical thinking to broken men who need to restructure their responses to adversity. The Federal Bureau of Prisons found that “the more education received the less likely an individual is to be re-arrested or re-imprisoned.” Specifically, the Bureau found that those who achieve a high school diploma or GED have less than a 54.6% recidivism rate, those with an associate’s degree, less than 13.7%, those with a bachelor’s degree, less than 5.6%, and for those with a master’s degree, 0%.5 Investment in higher education can be an investment in the future of North Carolina.


I wish I had been with Mouse before he acted that day. Maybe I could have calmed him by whispering, “we don’t have to act like animals because they treat us like animals.” Then again, words might not have stopped him. Words may extinguish a candle’s flickering flame but to combat the pressures spawned by the hopelessness in prison would be like flinging an ice cube into a forest fire. Over the years, Mouse had been assaulted by many prisoners just as hopeless as him. Only the mercy of hope could have given him pause to think about his actions—a hope that life without parole and structured sentencing did not give him. Mouse killed someone and will pay dearly. This narrative may satisfy some for the time being, but the culture of violence in prisons did not begin with Mouse, and it will not end after his conviction.    


Thomas W. Ross and Susan Katznelson, “Crime and Punishment in North Carolina: Severity and Costs Under Structured Sentencing,” Federal Sentencing Reporter 11, no. 4 (1999): 207.

Ronald F. Wright, “Counting the Cost Of Structured Sentencing in North Carolina, 1980-2000,” Crime and Justice 29, (2002): 48.  

Ronald F. Wright

Matt Clark, “The Sentencing Project Issues Report on Reducing Excessive Punishment for Violent Crimes,” Prison Legal News, Lake Worth Beach, FL; Human Rights Defense Center, October 2019, 40-41.

Jeff Isabell-Taylor, “Education Key to Lower Recidivism Rates,” Guild Notes 43 no.2/3 Summer/Fall (2018), 21.