More than 1,300 prisoners were in solitary confinement on any given day in New Jersey prisons and jails as recently as last December, according to Princeton University students who gathered data on the issue last year.
Members of the Princeton University group Students for Prison Education and Reform gathered data on solitary confinement in New Jersey using the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) in the fall of 2015. Students for Prison Education and Reform, Solitary Watch, and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey will be issuing a full report on the solitary confinement data in the spring of 2017.
The release of the initial information, first published by The Marshall Project, comes on the heels of Governor Chris Christie’s veto of a bill that would limit the use of solitary confinement in New Jersey’s prisons. Christie has defended the state’s policy of “restrictive housing,” insisting it is significantly different from the harsh isolation reformers are fighting to curtail in federal and state prisons across the country. State lawmakers and prison watchdogs have disputed Christie’s contention that a form of isolated confinement called “administrative segregation” has replaced solitary confinement, and lawyers who work with inmates say Christie’s language is mere wordplay.
Students for Prison Education and Reform gathered public records they say show that solitary confinement is used routinely, including as a form of discipline. 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.
According to the group, data from the state for December of 2015 showed that 80 percent of the roughly 1,300 people in restricted housing units were either in administrative segregation or the management control unit, a segregated wing of prisons for prisoners were are viewed as potential troublemakers or political leaders who needed to be segregated to keep them from influencing the rest of the population. Advocates for prisoners claim all the terms are equivalent to solitary confinement.
The prisoners in restricted housing units stayed for extended periods of time, with 92 percent of inmates in administrative segregation there for 30 days or longer. More than 400 prisoners were in solitary confinement for longer than six months, and 137 were in solitary confinement for longer than a year, according to the data gathered by the student group.
Prison-wide New Jersey Department of Corrections communications from the fall 2015 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. The data, gathered from internal New Jersey Department of Corrections reports prepared for the Christie administration in 2015, contradicts Christie’s assertion that segregation units were used “primarily” for medical or safety-related reasons, the group says.
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 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 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.”
The Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, passed by both houses of the New Jersey Legislature, 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. The legislation also called for increased rehabilitation and oversight in the New Jersey prison system.
“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.”