Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement Praises

December 2, 2014

Legislation would sharply curtail isolation in correctional facilities and ban its use for people with mental illness, juveniles, and other vulnerable populations.

The Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement-NJ strongly supports legislation introduced today by state Senator Raymond Lesniak to sharply curtail the use of isolation, sometimes referred to as solitary confinement or segregation, in prisons and jails in

New Jersey. This legislation would also ban the isolation of vulnerable populations such as juveniles and people with mental illness.

The ground-breaking legislation would install limits on and provide safeguards for the use of isolated confinement on all prisoners. It would:

  • permit the use of isolated confinement of adults only when the prisoner presents a significant and immediate danger to self or others and other alternatives would not ensure the safety of all involved;
  • impose limits on the length of time an prisoner may be allowed in solitary confinement;
  • require that when isolated confinement is used, the prisoner be actively monitored by corrections personnel and mental health professionals; and
  • mandate public reporting of the use of isolation.

The bill seeks to resist the demonstrated tendency to use isolated confinement as an intervention of first resort, rather than exploring other less harmful interventions, with more positive and lasting effects.

The Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement-NJ believes that isolated confinement should only be utilized in extremely rare circumstances, where safety is immediately at risk and where other alternatives do not exist.

Members of the Campaign praised Senator Lesniak’s leadership on this issue, taking note of New Jersey's persistent history of imposing long-term isolation for years and even decades; the escalating use of isolated confinement as a disciplinary measure for even minor infractions; and the growing acknowledgement among clinicians, legal professionals and human rights advocates of the harm caused by the practice of isolation to all persons, and particularly to young people and people with mental illness.

  • “The diverse faith traditions represented by NRCAT hold in common a belief in the dignity of each human person. We share a conviction that the widespread use of isolated confinement in New Jersey prisons, jails and detention centers violates basic human rights and religious values of community. Further, we feel that isolated confinement is disproportionately impacting persons and communities of color. This bill, by putting strict limits on the torturous practice of isolated confinement, will hopefully help redirect jail and prison resources toward creative forms of rehabilitation and restorative justice. I'm proud that with this bill New Jersey can become a leader on ending the torture of solitary confinement in America," said Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.
  • “Long-term solitary confinement is cruel, expensive and ineffective. Isolation creates and exacerbates symptoms of mental illness in prisoners, undermines successful re-entry into society and jeopardizes public safety. Meanwhile, states that have reduced their isolated confinement populations have saved millions and seen violence plummet,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom.
  • “The American Friends Service Committee stands with the UN Committee on Torture in condemning the US practice of imposing prolonged isolation on prisoners. While the US government insists that there “is no systematic use of solitary confinement”, the AFSC, a Quaker organization, has abundant evidence and testimonies to the contrary. The lack of human contact is considered no touch torture and has to be abolished as an affront to standards of international human, civil and political rights,” said Bonnie Kerness, director of AFSC's Prison Watch Project.
  • The People's Organization for Progress “is profoundly concerned about the role of prisons in our society and the phenomenon of mass incarceration which disproportionately affects people of color and people suffering economically in our country. We are equally concerned about the conditions under which people are confined in our public and privatized jails and prisons. We are gratified that because of the courageous actions of people directly affected and at risk, community organizations, health care and legal professionals, communities of faith, public officials and international entities are finally drawing attention to this practice. Because the State of New Jersey was the first state to legislatively abolish the death penalty, we are optimistic that our legislature will act to abolish solitary confinement as it is currently practiced in our state,” said Jean Ross, a Princeton-area lawyer who works with the People’s Organization for Progress.

In 1890 the U.S. Supreme Court noted the damaging impact of solitary confinement, yet the practice of locking prisoners in a cell, alone or with another person, for 22-24 hours a day, continues, not only in New Jersey, but in every state.

A study by the Vera Institute of Justice reported in 2006 that more than 80,000 people in prison are in isolation at any time, not including those in jails or detention centers.

In 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture took the position that isolated confinement beyond 15 days should be prohibited because of its devastating psychological toll.

Estimates vary, but Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel for the ACLU National Prison Project, reports that as many as 30% to 50% of all those in isolation suffer from mental illness, although these figures vary by prison and state.

If enacted, the legislation introduced by Senator Lesniak would put New Jersey among the states at the forefront of an initiative that is becoming critically important for corrections departments nationwide. It would also stimulate efforts to develop alternative interventions with less harmful implications for those who are currently incarcerated, correctional staff, families and communities throughout New Jersey to which returning citizens will one day return.

A half-dozen states have considered taking steps to ban isolated confinement completely, but few have taken such action. Last year, Colorado became only the second state to ban isolated confinement for people with serious mental illness. Nearly a year ago, New York banned solitary confinement for juveniles as a result of a class action lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Categories: Criminal Justice, Prisons

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