1,300 were in forms of solitary confinement each day in NJ, counter to Governor’s insistence that solitary doesn’t exist

More than 1,300 prisoners were in solitary confinement on any given day in New Jersey’s prisons and jails as recently as last December, according to data released for the first time by human rights advocates. The release of these data, gathered by Students for Prison Education and Reform: Princeton (SPEAR), Solitary Watch, and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, previews a solitary confinement report to be issued in 2017.

The release of this information, first published by The Marshall Project, comes on the heels of Governor Chris Christie’s veto of a bill that would have dramatically reformed solitary confinement in the state.

Christie’s statement accompanying his veto of S51, which would have allowed solitary confinement only as a last resort, repeated his administration’s claim that solitary confinement does not exist in our state, despite overwhelming evidence that it is used routinely, including as a form of discipline.

“The Department of Corrections’ historical secrecy in its operation of solitary confinement units has allowed prison officials and politicians to misrepresent and obscure their unethical use with near-impunity,” said Daniel Teehan, Vice President of SPEAR and main author of the Marshall Project article. “These preliminary findings allow us to call out this deception for what it is, and to do so in a way that is substantiated by the state’s own data.”

According to that data – which draws from daily averages in December 2015 – 80 percent of the roughly 1,300 people in restricted housing units – another term for solitary confinement – were found in either administrative segregation or the Management Control Unit, a form of solitary confinement regularly used at administrators' discretion.

The prisoners in those units stayed there for extended periods of time, the data found; 92 percent of those in administrative segregation had been there for 30 days or longer. The United Nations considers a sentence of 15 days or longer to be torture. The research also found that 409 prisoners were in solitary confinement for longer than six months, and 137 were in solitary confinement for longer than a year.

“If signed into law, the bill would have made New Jersey a leader in solitary confinement reform,” said Jean Casella, Co-Director of the national watchdog group Solitary Watch. “Instead, it now lags behind at least a dozen states that have made significant reductions in their solitary populations, including California, Colorado, and New York.”

Prison-wide Department of Corrections (DOC) communications (PDF) from fall 2015 uncovered in the report’s research discuss sections of New Jersey administrative code that explicitly put forth dozens of categories of infractions for which administrative segregation, a term for solitary confinement, is given as a disciplinary sanction.

These data directly contradict Christie’s assertion that segregation units were used “primarily” for medical or safety-related reasons, an erroneous argument his veto statement made to refute the demonstrable fact that isolation is used as a disciplinary measure.

The data released this week were gathered from internal New Jersey Department of Corrections reports prepared for the Christie administration in 2015, providing a snapshot in time regarding prison and jail conditions across the state. The data, never before made public, were first obtained by SPEAR under New Jersey’s public records laws.

“The overwhelming harms of solitary confinement make the practice little more than cruelty for cruelty’s sake,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “These data are extremely sobering, and they show a deep crisis in the overuse and abuse of solitary confinement in our state. Solitary confinement exists in New Jersey, and we’ve seen that it’s used routinely instead of as a last resort, to the detriment of people’s mental health, human rights, and safety.”

Solitary confinement is defined as isolation of people in closed cells for 22-24 hours a day, alone or with another person, virtually free of human contact for periods of time ranging from days to decades.

Christie’s veto comes at a time of increased attention to solitary confinement nationwide. Last month, the Association of State Correctional Administrators and Yale Law School jointly released a comprehensive report (PDF) showing that last fall across the U.S., the median percentage of the prison population held in restricted housing was 5.1 percent. By contrast, the new data show that 6.9 percent of all people — including 7.5 percent of women — in New Jersey prisons were in restricted housing in December 2015.

The Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, passed by both houses of the New Jersey Legislature following the Assembly’s vote in October, would have placed new limits on the use and duration of solitary confinement and excluded certain vulnerable populations — such as children, pregnant women, and people with mental illnesses — from being placed in isolation. Solitary confinement is known to worsen mental illness, and it can even cause it in prisoners who were healthy when they entered solitary. The legislation also called for increased rehabilitation and oversight in the New Jersey prison system.

The full report on New Jersey’s use of solitary confinement will be released in early 2017. The Department of Corrections memo (PDF) describing the range of time in solitary confinement for various infractions can be read online.