Assembly vote sends human rights measure to Christie’s desk

With a historic vote in the New Jersey Assembly, the Legislature today passed a bill to restrict solitary confinement in New Jersey’s prisons and jails. The bill aims to end the routine use of the tactic and bar its use on New Jersey’s most vulnerable prison populations. The bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin in the Assembly and Senator Ray Lesniak in the Senate, now goes to Governor Christie’s desk. The ACLU-NJ, clergy members, and human rights organizations such as the National Religious Campaign Against Torture urge the Governor to sign the bill into law.

“This is a watershed moment for civil rights and human rights in New Jersey,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “We thank Assemblywoman Pinkin and Senator Lesniak for their leadership and strong sense of conscience in advocating for more humane treatment of prisoners. We urge Governor Christie act on his compassion by quickly signing this bill. New Jersey can show the rest of the country what more humane solitary confinement looks like.”

The bill, S51:

  • Requires facilities to use solitary confinement — being held 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 – 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, LGBTQ people, and people with various disabilities.
  • Requires medical clearance and daily evaluations for prisoners in solitary confinement.

“We thank the Legislature for its national leadership on criminal justice reform by curbing our state’s addiction to solitary confinement,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “We now call on Governor Christie to honor his commitment to fix our broken criminal justice system. The overwhelming harms of solitary confinement make the practice little more than cruelty for cruelty’s sake.”

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. More importantly, the ACLU-NJ and human rights organizations say, solitary confinement is considered a form of torture. Solitary confinement can exacerbate mental illnesses, and it can bring on mental illness where it didn’t exist before.

In New Jersey, the ACLU-NJ has brought several legal cases challenging the abuse and misuse of solitary confinement. One man, P.D., was held in solitary for months at a time in the Middlesex County Jail despite the harms solitary confinement poses on individuals with mental illnesses, such as P.D. The ACLU-NJ represents a group of prisoners held in solitary confinement in Middlesex County Jail who cannot receive visits from family members while in solitary confinement. This summer, the ACLU-NJ won a victory on behalf of a man who was given more than three years of solitary confinement for throwing a bucket of water mixed with feces.

New Jersey is part of a national trend in restricting the use of solitary confinement. Earlier this year, the federal government enacted similar restrictions on solitary confinement in federal prisons and jails. Many states have severely limited the use of solitary confinement, resulting in greater public safety and savings in state budgets.

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

  • A man in New Jersey State Prison received 90 days in solitary confinement 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” received an 810-day solitary confinement sentence for providing legal help to female prisoners filing in a class-action civil rights suit. Letters from attorneys were considered “contraband.” 
  • A man received 180 days of solitary confinement because he was prescribed 50 mg of Benadryl, and he had two 25-mg pills rather than a single pill.

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.