A New Jersey appeals court issued a searing decision on Thursday that reversed a three-and-a-half-year solitary confinement sentence given to a prisoner without any mental health assessment after he threw a mixture of water, feces, and urine toward a corrections officer.
The written opinion (PDF) rebuked the Department of Corrections (DOC) for violating the man’s rights, and in particular for vague sanctioning practices that give total and unguided discretion to Department of Corrections hearing officers. The decision also strongly criticized DOC’s substandard mental health screening and inadequate translation services. It also noted skeptically DOC’s denial that solitary confinement exists at all in New Jersey.
The ACLU-NJ was asked by the court to represent the prisoner, Rigoberto Mejia, who had initially represented himself after appealing his 1,295-day — or nearly three-and-a-half-year — solitary confinement sentence. Advocates define solitary confinement as holding people in a cell or enclosed space for 22 hours a day or longer, either alone or with another inmate, with severely restricted activity, movement and social interaction. Because long-term solitary confinement exacerbates mental illness — and has caused mental illness in prisoners who did not have it before — other courts have ruled that long-term solitary confinement of mentally ill prisoners violates the Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, the ACLU-NJ said in its brief (PDF).
“There are so many layers of injustice in what happened to Rigoberto Mejia, and, unfortunately, the kind of solitary confinement abuse he experienced is not rare,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom, who defended Mejia. “Fortunately for Mr. Mejia, and hopefully for other vulnerable New Jersey prisoners held in solitary confinement, this blistering decision all but demands New Jersey’s state prisons never repeat the ineptitude and cruelty put on display here.”
Mejia, a 57-year-old prisoner at New Jersey State Prison who speaks little English, claimed that he feared a corrections officer “wanted to jump him” when he threw a bucket of liquid at the officer, and he immediately barricaded his door using his bed sheets.
The DOC performed a cursory mental health screening through a locked cell door in English. During his time in solitary confinement, the DOC concluded from Mejia’s silence during questioning that he did not need mental health services.
“From its unnecessarily long sanction, to never showing any evidence of a mental health screening – even the cursory one provided – until the day of oral argument, to disregard of its own regulations, the Department of Corrections showed a stunning indifference to the human rights of Mr. Mejia,” said ACLU-NJ Staff Attorney Rebecca Livengood. “We’re grateful to know that the judges also recognized the severity of the DOC’s mistreatment.”
Since the time Mejia was sentenced, the Department of Corrections has revised its rules to limit the time someone can serve in solitary confinement as punishment for the same incident to one year, even if there were multiple offenses. Recognizing that shift, the court reduced the original 1,295-day punishment to 365 days, but New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division Judge Ellen Koblitz, who authored the decision, observed that Mejia had already served more than the maximum punishment currently available.
The DOC gave Mejia the longest sentence possible for the offense of throwing bodily fluids, claiming it was based on three reasons, all of which the Appellate Division rejected:
- Because prison authorities thought his behavior was “disgusting” — a term that would fit the behavior of anyone who had broken that rule, as the court wrote
- That he needed to be held responsible for his actions — likely an expectation for anyone who had committed an offense
- Corrections officers had to be medically examined afterward — the court found that the fact of the examination was not evidence of harm or injuries from the incident
The Appellate Division rarely intervenes in agency decisions, as the opinion recognized, but it will reverse decisions that are arbitrary or capricious or that rise to the legal standard of: “whether [the] punishment is so disproportionate to the offense, in light of all the circumstances, as to be shocking to one’s sense of fairness.”
The decision said that although it was too late for Mejia himself to benefit from the vindication of his rights, the court expects the DOC to follow guidelines mandating humane treatment of prisoners in the future.
“As is true all too often, the time taken in this appeal, including the time necessitated by the failure of the DOC to translate Mejia’s agency appeal initially, has nullified any practical effect of this relief,” the decision said. “Nonetheless, we anticipate that the requirement for the consideration and articulation of sanctioning factors by hearing officers this opinion imposes will assure the sanctioning of state prisoners more ‘fair and equitable,’ a stated goal of the DOC.”
Read the Appellate Division's decision (PDF) and the ACLU-NJ brief (PDF) in defense of prisoner Rigoberto Mejia's rights.