Solitary Confinement Reform Bill Passes in Historic NJ Senate Vote

Affiliate: ACLU of New Jersey
June 27, 2016 4:45 pm

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The New Jersey Senate approved a historic bill restricting solitary confinement in New Jersey’s prisons and jails, making history by voting to end routine use of the tactic and bar its use on our most vulnerable populations. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Raymond Lesniak, passed by a vote of 23-16. The bill will now go to the Assembly for passage.

“This is a historic moment for civil and human rights in New Jersey,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “We thank Sen. Lesniak for his unwavering leadership on this issue and for advancing a bill that would make New Jersey a model for the reform of solitary confinement nationwide. For the first time, a New Jersey legislative chamber has voted to rein in our state’s overuse and abuse of solitary confinement in prisons and jails.”

The bill, S51:

  • Requires facilities to use solitary confinement only as a last resort
  • Prohibits solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days or 20 days in a 60-day period
  • Bans isolation for the most vulnerable populations, including people who have mental illnesses, pregnant women, LGBT people, and people with various disabilities
  • Requires medical clearance and daily evaluations for prisoners in solitary confinement

New Jersey joins a national trend in taking this step to restrict the use of solitary confinement. President Obama enacted similar standards for solitary confinement in federal prisons and jails, and many states have severely limited the use of solitary confinement, with gains in public safety and benefits to state budgets.

In New Jersey, the ACLU-NJ has brought several legal cases challenging the abuse and misuse of solitary confinement. One man, P.D., who has been diagnosed with multiple mental illnesses, was held in solitary for months at a time in the Middlesex County Jail, despite the particular harms solitary confinement can inflict on such individuals. The ACLU-NJ also represents a group of prisoners held in solitary confinement in Middlesex County Jail, as well as a man who was given more than three years of solitary confinement for throwing a bucket of water mixed with feces.

“Solitary confinement is expensive, it’s damaging, and it worsens mental illness – and in some cases actually causes it in people who were healthy before solitary,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “Prisons and jails are using solitary confinement as a routine, garden-variety punishment, when in fact it’s a traumatic and inhumane form of punishment that can leave permanent scars. Using solitary confinement when alternatives exist harms both prisoners and corrections staff.”

Some examples of infractions that have resulted in solitary confinement in New Jersey include:

  • A man in New Jersey State Prison, who received 90 days in solitary for using obscene language to a staff member, despite the fact that witnesses said the officer was the one who used foul language, not the inmate.
  • An inmate acting as an informal “jailhouse lawyer,” who received solitary for providing legal help to female prisoners filing in a class-action civil rights suit, for having “contraband” – letters from attorneys, and for making three-way phone calls. He was given 810 days in solitary confinement.
  • A man who received 180 days of solitary confinement because he was prescribed 50 mg of Benadryl, and he had two 25-mg pills instead.

Administrative segregation units, a form of solitary confinement, are more expensive to maintain than normal incarceration conditions. By shifting away from these units, the ACLU-NJ calculated that the state could ultimately save more than $5 million per year by cutting solitary confinement by 50 percent, based on conservative estimates.

The Department of Corrections has claimed that solitary confinement does not take place in New Jersey facilities. Rather, it uses the label “restrictive housing units,” a difference in terminology that amounts to the same practice. For that reason, the Department of Corrections has stated it cannot participate in estimating the fiscal impact of solitary confinement reform.

“Ending solitary confinement abuse is a critical part of fixing our broken criminal justice system. This issue poses fundamental questions of how we want to treat the most vulnerable in our society, and who we want our neighbors to be once they are released from prisons and jails,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “We believe limiting solitary confinement is a human rights imperative, and we encourage the Assembly to follow the Senate and bring the bill up for a vote quickly.”

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