Op-Ed: Support Legislation to Restrict Solitary Confinement in NJ Prisons

Tricia Idrobo | January 8, 2019 | Opinion
There are about 1,500 prisoners in isolated confinement at any given time in New Jersey jails or state prisons. Many allege they’re placed there for petty or arbitrary reasons

Tricia Idrobo
As we go about our busy lives, it is easy not to give much thought to, or even hear about, what goes on in our country’s prisons, including the widespread use of isolated confinement, also known as solitary confinement. If we don’t know anyone in prison, it doesn’t affect us, right?

Not so quick. Putting aside humanitarian concerns for the moment, we know that many ex-prisoners are eventually released into the community, which means their lives directly and indirectly affect the character of our communities. If nothing else, we are all footing the bill through our taxes. Whether we like it or not, we all have a stake in this issue.

I invite you to consider the following:

  • Isolated confinement results in trauma and mental illness, leading to its condemnation by dozens of religious, medical, humanitarian and psychiatric associations.
  • According to human rights advocates, the practice disproportionately affects communities of color. There are about 1,500 prisoners in isolated confinement at any given time in New Jersey jails or state prisons.
  • The United Nations considers anything more than 15 days in isolation to be torture. However, there are currently few guidelines for its use in New Jersey’s prisons, allowing many prisoners to be isolated for much longer than is necessary or responsible, sometimes spanning years or decades at a time.
  • Picture yourself in a small cell

    Let’s not gloss over that last statement — years or decades in isolated confinement! Picture yourself in a small cell with no windows and no human contact for even one day, and it will be clear how detrimental this practice is.

    At events of the NJ Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (NJCAIC) I have listened in tears to the stories of survivors of solitary confinement. One man related his experiences while in solitary confinement for three years. During that time he developed a mental illness, putting him at an extra disadvantage in supporting himself and his family upon re-entry into the community. Another man told of being in solitary confinement for 18 years. NJCAIC is now collecting and publishing on its website their stories to put a face to this heartbreaking situation.

    When I tell people that I’m supporting the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act (bills A-314 and S-3261 in the state Assembly and Senate respectively) their first reaction is often to argue that individuals put in solitary confinement must have done something bad to merit punishment. However, according to survivors, many prisoners are put into solitary confinement for petty or arbitrary reasons, not because of violence against a guard or other prisoner.

    Proposed changes

    What are the main provisions of the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act?

  • Isolated confinement is defined as confinement in a restrictive setting for an average of 23 hours a day, alone or with a bunkmate.
  • Prisoner isolation is prohibited unless there is reasonable cause to believe an inmate poses a serious and immediate risk of harm to self or others, and only when all less restrictive interventions are insufficient.
  • No inmate can be placed in isolation for more than 15 consecutive days, and for no more than 20 days in a 60-day period.
  • Certain vulnerable populations are excluded entirely from isolation, including those aged 21 and under, those 55 and older, pregnant women, and people with developmental disabilities, mental illness, or serious medical conditions.
  • Anyone being placed in isolation must undergo regular clinically-conducted medical and mental health examinations.
  • ‘…cruel, dangerous, unnecessary’

    I understand that correctional staff may believe they need isolated confinement, also known as administrative segregation or management control units, to maintain order. I empathize with their situation since, as it stands now, prisoners and guards find themselves in an adversarial relationship. For this very reason, all stakeholders, including correctional staff, should welcome new, more humane alternatives for maintaining order which have been developed and used successfully across the country, for example in Colorado. These approaches have been found to improve the overall climate of prisons as well as the rehabilitative goals for detainees.

    It all comes down to what is the best way to ensure public safety and the welfare of our communities. Should prisons try to “break” the spirit of inmates and emphasize punishment as a deterrent, or would prisons achieve better results by treating detainees with dignity and preparing them for a productive life upon release?

    According to the NJ Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, “Isolated confinement is cruel, dangerous, unnecessary, expensive, and antithetical to humane correctional goals. It is time for New Jersey to become a true leader in correctional reform by replacing harmful housing practices with humane alternatives.”

    If you believe this system must be changed, please urge your representatives in the Legislature to support bills A-314 and S-3261.