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Solitary Confinement in New Jersey’s Prisons: Cruel and Usual Punishment

Isolating inmates can lead to PTSD and paranoia; new legislation could reduce the use of ‘close custody’ and put outside oversight in place

Howard Nathaniel Thompson
Howard Nathaniel Thompson (right) spent 30 years of his life in prison. Today, he's an ordained minister and a counselor who works with inmates.

Howard Nathaniel Thompson spent 30 years behind bars, and he has seen firsthand the impact that isolated confinement has on inmates.

While Thompson, known as Nate, was lucky enough to avoid isolation, he worked with many inmates at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton and East Jersey State Prison in Woodbridge in his capacity as a counselor and ordained minister. Many of those who have been in isolation (what the state calls “close custody”), he said, come out and can function -- provided they get some assistance.

Most, however, experience serious psychological and trust issues after being cut off from human contact for as much as 23 hours a day for long stretches, he said. They no longer know how to cope or interact with others.

“I've seen guys have these, people have these breakdowns, guys who have not had mental-health issues prior to prison, having (isolation) thrust on them to a point where they are not ready for it. You are not prepared for it.”

Close custody involves moving a prisoner to a separate area of a corrections facility for disciplinary or administrative reasons, usually with little contact beyond some interaction with guards.

Equivalent of torture?

Critics say it qualifies as torture under international rules and is used far too often and without oversight. Guards and prison administrators have wide latitude on when it is used and for how long inmates get placed in isolation, which leads to abuses. This goes for state prisons and county jails. The answer, they say, is to place limits on how long and how often close custody is used. They’re also want more outside oversight, including frequent reviews of its use by someone outside of the Department of Corrections.

“You learn very quickly you are in world that, itself, is isolated,” Thompson said. “There is no real oversight. Anything can happen to you and anything does happen to a lot of people. You recognize that you do not have a voice.”

The critics also say isolated confinement can exacerbate inmates’ existing mental-health issues or trigger new ones. Inmates, they say, become more paranoid and less able to interact with others, making it more difficult for them to return to the general prison population and later to the civilian population. This contributes to recidivism and poses a danger to inmates, guards, and the larger community.

Legislation introduced by Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) would place limits on close custody, allowing its use only when “necessary to protect the inmate or another inmate from physical harm,” and prohibits its use “for disciplinary or administrative reasons.” The bill, S-1650, currently applies to state facilities, though Lesniak and other legislators say it could be expanded to cover county jails. Lesniak said the bill is part of a larger reform effort that will include expanded focus on mental-health issues, sentencing and parole reform, along with reentry services for those who have been released.

The state has not reviewed its system in “almost fifty years,” Lesniak said. Other states already have made important reforms, he said, and there is a growing acknowledgement by federal officials -- Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, President Barack Obama, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker -- that there needs to be change not just in the practice of isolated confinement.

Booker, for instance, joined with U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) to introduce what they are calling the Mercy Act. The bill, unveiled August 5, would ban the use of isolation on juveniles tried in the federal system and held in pretrial facilities and juvenile detention facilities.

“Not only is solitary confinement cruel and demeaning, it’s a violation of one’s human dignity,” Booker said in a press release. “When imposed on adolescents, it can cause serious long-term psychological and physical harm,”

Call for reforms

Lesniak said there is a “growing understanding” that the “entire criminal justice system, from top to bottom, needs to be overhauled because it is not working well,.” He added, “It’s inefficient. It’s expensive, and it is not providing the safety for our public. This is one part of the entire problem.”

The state Senate Law and Public Safety Committee held a hearing on the confinement bill in February, but no vote was taken. Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex), the chairwoman, tabled discussion because the state could not provide adequate data. She said she hopes to resume hearings on the bill in the fall and that she is supporting the legislation.

“Should we be punishing people by putting them in solitary?” Greenstein said. “I can see saying to them ‘you are not fit to be among the rest of the inmates,’ pulling them out and having them separated for some period of time to calm down.”

However, she added, there should be a limit on how long and there should be outside oversight to ensure it is being used properly.

There were 1,468 inmates in close custody on July 30, according to the state Department of Corrections. Overall, there are 21,486 inmates in the 13 state correctional and satellite facilities. One of every 15 state-level inmates is currently in close custody|.

The state administrative code identifies several uses of close custody and different levels of restriction. The primary uses are:

  • disciplinary detention, which calls for removal from the general population as punishment;

  • management control, which isolates inmates who pose a “substantial threat” to the safety of people or property, or who threaten the operation of the facility;

  • temporary close custody, which is nonpunitive and short-term (up to 72 hours) and is used for observational or investigative purposes; and

  • protective custody, which can be voluntary or imposed by staff and is used to separate the inmate from the general population.

Spokesmen for Gov. Chris Christie and the Department of Corrections said they do not comment on pending legislation and, while the DOC provided figures for those in close custody, it did not elaborate on the number of prisoners in each category or how long inmates are typically held in isolation.

County jail officials who attended a roundtable at Kean University on July 22 on the uses of close custody said they were supportive of reforms, but were concerned that the needs of county facilities be taken into account.

“Everyone at this table understands the need for change here and that we need to work together for change,” said Eugene Caldwell, warden of the Gloucester County Department of Corrections and president of the New Jersey County Jail Wardens Association. “But there are differences between county jails and state and federal prison.”

County jails have different issues

The length of stay by inmates is shorter and the turnover of inmates is more frequent, he said. But inmates can be held by the county level for extended periods, usually about a year though sometimes longer, and several county jails serve as immigration detention centers. There also is less money available to county jails and less space at most county facilities, limiting the ability of county corrections departments to create separate units.

Other county corrections officials agreed. They said money would need to be allocated to cover the added cost of new and upgraded facilities and added manpower. They also said the definitions in the legislation need to more explicitly explain what facilities are covered and by which provisions.

“We support this bill,” said Oscar Aviles, warden in Hudson County. “Our issues are with some of the definitions.”

Sen. Lesniak said he is happy to work with county corrections officials and planned to incorporate many of their concerns into the final bill. But he said it is clear that reforms are necessary.

“Obviously, the biggest problems are in the state corrections system, where people are in prison for longer than a year,” he said. “However, people stay in jails in the county corrections and the juvenile-justice system for long periods of time, as well. We have to look at every single one.”

He said there needs to be a “standard operating procedure” throughout the state to “ensure that stays in isolated solitary confinement are brief,” that they happen only when necessary to address safety concerns, and that they are “subject to review.” The goal is “not only to protect the prisoner, but also to protect the corrections officers, the staff, and society when a prisoner ultimately gets out.”

Lesniak and Greenstein said that providing services to mentally ill inmates and screening for mental illness has to be a part of the broader reforms.

“We do know there are not systems in place to limit (isolated confinement) and ensure that mental-health services are given to inmates,” Lesniak said. “Prisoners get out and, if they are out after being mentally impaired and physically and emotionally impaired, it is not going to help their rehabilitation or help them to successfully go back into the community.”

Many inmates enter prison with existing mental illnesses ranging from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder to more extreme psychoses, say mental health professionals. The prison experience can aggravate these, even when inmates are not placed in isolation. It is worse for those who end up in close custody, they say, because of the lack of human contact or emotional and intellectual stimuli.

Isolation, said Barbara Prempeh, a member of the New Jersey Association of Black Psychologists, can lead inmates to develop coping mechanisms that make them incompatible with the general prison population or with society outside of prison -- hypervigilance and paranoia, an inability to read the intentions of others -- which then causes them to lash out inappropriately, and a general fear of human contact. And this is the case not just for those already suffering from mental illness, who make up the majority of the prison population. When inmates who do not suffer from post-traumatic stress or other disorders are placed in long-term isolation,they “eventually lose touch with reality.”

“In solitary, the issue is how will they be when they come back into society,” she said. “The goal is not incarceration for life. If they are in isolated confinement, then we have to ask how will they act when come back into society.”

Worries about juvenile inmates

Prempeh said she is particularly concerned with juveniles, because many who enter the criminal justice system -- about “80 percent of the youth that are detained” -- have had “at least one potentially traumatic experience” that makes them more susceptible to mental-health problems. Teens in high-crime areas can be desensitized to violence, or they develop coping mechanisms that help them avoid perceived dangers. They suffer nightmares, depression, and anxiety, she said.

“My concern as a mental health professional is the treatment they are being exposed to,” she said. “This can lead to an increase in suicidal behavior. There is either an attempt or an expression of suicide” for those who come in with existing disorders.

Prempeh said the use of close custody has a disproportionate impact on minorities because it compounds the biases that are built into the system. Blacks and Latinos -- because of geography, economics, and politics -- have more dealings with and are treated more harshly by the justice system, Prempeh said. This means black and Latino juveniles end up in jail more frequently than whites and that there likely is a greater incidence of PTSD in minority neighborhoods.

”You are supposed to be trying to rehabilitate them (in prison) so they come back into the community,” she said. Instead, prisons are using isolation as a corrective measure, which instead is “creating these kinds of psychological symptoms. I

t is something that impacts everyone. The way prisoners are treated impacts the community.”

Groups like the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Friends Service Committee define most isolation as torture.

“A person is held in a cell without meaningful human contact for much of the day,” Alex Shalom of the ACLU said. “That is what defines it. That is what leads to the associated harms.”

“You end up in these macabre settings, and not just for the most serious offenses,” he added. “But also for things like calling guard a (expletive). That is not to say that it is appropriate or that you shouldn’t receive disciplinary sanction. But is (isolation) an appropriate and proportional response to calling the guard a bad word?”

Bonnie Kerness, who runs the AFSC Prison Watch Project in New Jersey, said the use of isolation is a “violation of international convention against torture.”

“We are social animals,” she said. They need interaction to remain intellectually and emotionally healthy. “Often, people cut themselves, and they exhibit all sorts of strange behaviors when placed in isolation for long periods of time.”

Thompson said he has seen this firsthand.

“I’ve seen people who have become so used to being alone that any kind of contact makes them paranoid,” he said. “It can lead to violent responses. You are going from someone who never has someone walking behind you, and now you are forced into a constant situation where you think someone who is walking behind you is going to do harm to you. Others have had serious mental-health breakdowns. I've seen guys go in to their room and not come out. That isolation is being taken away from them and they don’t know how to do without it.”

He said the symptoms are similar to those experienced by long-term prisoners of war.

“They will stay in their room,” he said. “They don’t know how to deal with people. Anything else is too damaging to them.”

“You never feel free from it, especially if isolation is a result of a whim or is arbitrary,” he added. “You see it happen to you once, and you disbelieve that you are safe and you kind of have your fear level raised to a greater level. So you’re kind of expecting it at every turn.”

Isolation “is a constant threat when you are in there,” Thompson said.

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