County changes practices following lawsuits over solitary confinement, but legislative reform still imperative

The ACLU-NJ and the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender announced a settlement agreement (PDF) in a major federal lawsuit against Middlesex County Jail challenging the inhumane solitary confinement unit it was operating when the lawsuit was filed (PDF). As a result of the agreement, Middlesex County has restricted the maximum amount of time allowed in isolation and gives people held in isolation opportunities to meaningfully interact with others.

Among other improvements, the new policies guarantee that people in the jail have at least 28 hours per week of time outside of a cell, or no more than 20 hours per day in a cell on average. Human rights standards define solitary confinement as imprisonment without meaningful human contact for 22 hours or more per day, and prolonged solitary confinement is widely recognized as a form of torture.

“In Middlesex County, it’s no longer possible to lock someone in solitary confinement and throw away the key,” said Deputy Public Defender Fletcher Duddy, who represents plaintiffs on behalf of the Office of the Public Defender. “As advocates for the clients we serve, we hope that the changes in policy in Middlesex County are just the first of many in New Jersey.”

The lawsuit was initially filed as a federal class action by the Office of the Public Defender (OPD) in 2015, with the ACLU-NJ joining as co-counsel the following year. Together, the organizations challenged inhumane solitary confinement practices in the jail’s C-Pod unit, designed specifically for solitary confinement.

The eight named plaintiffs who settled the lawsuit were locked in small cells alone almost continuously, languishing in forced idleness. Whether placed there for disciplinary reasons, for their own protection, or to separate them from co-defendants while awaiting trial, sometimes for years at a time, residents of C-Pod could not interact with others confined in the jail nor receive visits from family or friends.

The residents of C-Pod faced limits on their access to their attorneys, and they could not participate in religious, educational, or rehabilitative programs. The only places C-Pod residents could go apart from their cells were showers and 10-by-10-foot cages for exercise during recreation time.

Under the terms of the settlement agreement (PDF), the county will continue to operate a precautionary supervision unit, but one that provides 28 hours per week out of cells. People in the unit will have recreation time, in-unit programming, law library services, and protections involving less restrictive security measures, for example policies on the use of handcuffs.

Disciplinary detention can no longer exceed 15 days as a result of a single disciplinary charge or 30 days for multiple charges. The settlement also formalizes a more robust mental health screening process, which allows the director of mental health to stop inappropriate placements in solitary confinement. For two years, OPD and ACLU-NJ will have access to people detained there, jail records, and the facility itself to ensure full compliance with the settlement.

“The harms of solitary confinement last long after release from incarceration, which makes it incredibly important to limit its use,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “Middlesex County deserves credit for recognizing the need to curb cruel practices of solitary confinement and for taking action. We will continue to work with the county to guarantee that every person in the jail has an opportunity to engage with the world beyond concrete walls and their own thoughts.”

The agreement marks the second settlement concerning solitary confinement between the ACLU-NJ and Middlesex County this year. In a previous state court case (PDF), the ACLU-NJ and Blank Rome, LLP challenged Middlesex County’s unlawful use of solitary confinement for a man diagnosed with multiple mental illnesses. The plaintiff, P.D., was held in solitary for more than four months because he could not make bail.

P.D. was let out of his cell for only one hour per day, five days per week, in which he either showered or paced in a ten-foot-by-ten-foot chain-linked cage in the center of his housing unit. He received his meals and medication through a slot in the door, and the constant isolation exacerbated his mental illness.

The ACLU-NJ and OPD commended Middlesex County for implementing significant reforms even before the lawsuits’ resolution. Many of the system-wide policies laid out in the C-Pod settlement were already in place by the time the agreement was finalized. The organizations noted that the County engaged Vera Institute of Justice on its own initiative and said Warden Mark Cranston deserves substantial credit.

Middlesex County’s new policies should be a model to jails around the state, the organizations said. Because Middlesex is only one of 21 counties, and state prisons also have solitary confinement units, statewide legislative reform is imperative. As a member of the New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (NJCAIC), the ACLU-NJ continues to advocate for the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, A.314, a bill that would drastically limit the human rights abuses involved in solitary confinement and is modeled on international human rights standards and research-based models.

In 2016, an identical version of the bill (S.51/A.547) passed quickly through both houses of the New Jersey legislature, but was vetoed by Governor Christie. It has been reintroduced in 2018 as A.314.

In addition to many other protections, the bill:

  • Guarantees medical and mental health examinations before placement in isolation.
  • Ensures no one spends more than 15 consecutive days in isolation except in emergencies.
  • Prohibits members of vulnerable populations from ever being placed in isolation, including people aged 21 and under, people aged 55 and older, people with mental illness, people with serious medical conditions, and people who are pregnant.

The bill applies to state and county facilities alike. The bill would drastically improve the lives of an estimated 1,500 people who currently live in solitary confinement in jails and prisons across New Jersey.

“Although C-Pod stood as a particularly egregious example of the damage solitary confinement can inflict, unfortunately, similar conditions are found throughout New Jersey on a daily basis,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Supervising Attorney Alexander Shalom. “It’s incumbent upon the Legislature to make sure that the types of reforms that have brought Middlesex County in line with the Constitution apply to every facility in the state. We call on our lawmakers to pass the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act.”

More information about C-Pod Inmates of Middlesex County Adult Correction Center et al. v. Middlesex County and P.D. v. Middlesex County can be found on the ACLU-NJ website. More information about the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, A.314, can be found on the NJCAIC website.

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