By ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom

Alexander Shalom Alexander Shalom

Martin Luther King, Jr., famously hoped that if he were to be remembered as a drum major, people would say that he was a drum major for justice.

The drum that sounded at a March 10 New Jersey Senate Committee hearing, of course, isn’t new: Advocates have been beating it for years. Activists, medical professionals, family members and survivors have long-explained that solitary confinement is a brutal and dangerous practice. They have beaten the drum to explain that depriving human beings of meaningful social contact is both cruel and dangerous. People exposed to solitary confinement are more likely to suffer from hallucinations, revenge fantasies, rage, and irrational anger, and they’re more likely to turn their inward rage outward through self-mutilation.

In New Jersey, according to Department of Corrections statistics, there were more than 1,500 inmates in the various segregation units — administrative segregation, disciplinary detention, protective custody, etc. In county jails, where data is harder to come by, hundreds, and maybe even thousands of people are subjected to extreme isolation. In one county jail, for example, dozens of prisoners — mostly pretrial detainees, some of whom suffer from serious mental illnesses — are kept alone in their cells for 23 hours a day five days a week, and 24 hours a day the other two. Even when they're allowed outside of the cell, they can't speak to other inmates or go outside; instead they must pace in a small chain-linked cage.

Despite the continuous drum beat, many policymakers in New Jersey have not heard the cadence. As recently as February of last year, a policy proposal from Senator Raymond Lesniak seemed to fall on deaf ears. The proposal would limit isolated confinement in New Jersey prisons and jails, setting time limits, banning isolation for vulnerable populations, requiring facilities to use isolated confinement only as a last resort, and mandating daily safety checks for prisoners.

But, there have been new and powerful drummers in the last year that have made our cause too loud to ignore. In June, United States Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested that prolonged periods of near-total isolation, as are often the norm in American prisons and jails, may violate the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Then, President Barack Obama added to the building percussion: he wrote of solitary confinement, “It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.” He turned those concerns into policy, and in January, he dramatically restricted the use of solitary confinement in federal corrections facilities.

The question, though, was whether legislators in the Garden State would hear the growing beat of the drum. At a hearing before the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee last week the steady rhythm grew louder.

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture helped bring together New Jersey faith leaders to bring the issue to a crescendo.

Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale of the Reformed Church of Highland Park told the Committee a moving story about a parishioner’s daughter who was incarcerated for a non-violent drug offense. She recently suffered a psychotic break while in solitary confinement, and apparently no longer knew who she was.

Rabbi David Levy Testifying Rabbi David Levy Testifying

Rabbi David Levy of Temple Shalom of Succasunna recounted that when he served as the Jewish Chaplain at the Marion Federal Correctional Facility in Illinois, prisoners in solitary confinement – even those whom he wasn’t certain were Jewish – requested his companionship every month because they so thirsted for human interaction.

Rev. Charles F. Boyer of the Bethel AME Church in Woodbury, NJ, spoke powerfully about a young man who received half a year in solitary confinement for possession of a USB cable; he had received a tablet in the prison mail just a day earlier and the cord was part of the package he was given by correctional officers.

Rev. Boyer concluded by asking – on behalf of people of faith and moral conscience in New Jersey – the committee to release the bill. And the Committee finally heard the persistent rumble of the drumline, each percussionist both a drum major for justice, marching in front, and just another member of a mighty ensemble.

The bill, S51, was released from committee by a vote of 3 in favor, 1 against, and 1 abstention. It will now proceed to the Senate Budget Committee. Work remains to be done, but it is clear that New Jersey can no longer dismiss the thunderous roar of the drumbeat for justice.