Legislation to restrict the use of solitary confinement in New Jersey’s prisons was advanced Thursday by an Assembly committee sponsored by Assembly Democrats Nancy Pinkin, Shavonda Sumter, Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Reed Gusciora and Elizabeth Muoio.
“There is significant proof that solitary confinement can have a severe, long-term negative impact on an inmate’s mental health,” said Pinkin (D-Middlesex). “While solitary confinement is necessary in some cases, the use of isolation in New Jersey’s correctional facilities does irreparable psychological damage that affects people while they are in prison and detracts from former inmates’ ability to make positive contributions to their communities thereafter.”
The measure (A-547), to be known as the “Isolated Confinement Restriction Act,” would prohibit the use of isolated confinement in correctional facilities unless there is reasonable cause to believe that it is necessary to reduce the risk of serious harm to the inmate in question or others. A facility would be responsible for justifying the use of isolated confinement.
Under the bill, inmates would be required to receive a personal and comprehensive medical and mental health examination, conducted by a medical professional, before being placed in isolated confinement. An inmate also must be afforded the opportunity to contest the confinement with 72 hours of placement and must be removed from isolation if the facility administrator determines that he or she no longer meets the standard for isolated confinement.
If isolated confinement is deemed necessary, an inmate may not be held in isolation for more than 15 consecutive days, or for more than 20 days during any 60-day period. Spaces used for isolated confinement are to be properly ventilated, lit, temperature-controlled, clean and equipped with properly functioning sanitary fixtures. Additionally, under the bill, an inmate held in isolated confinement may not be denied access to food, water, medical care or any other basic necessity.
“In addition to this being a moral issue, it’s also a serious health care concern. Solitary confinement very often is associated with anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide,” said Sumter (D-Bergen/Passaic), director of Behavioral Health Services at Hackensack UMC Mountainside Hospital. “This is a method that should be employed as a last resort only in extreme cases and with extreme care. A convict may have committed a crime, but he or she is still a human being and deserves to be treated as such.”
The bill would require inmates in isolated confinement to receive daily evaluation by a medical professional. Individuals determined by the clinician to be members of a vulnerable population – including those who have certain illnesses or disabilities or who are 21 or younger, 65 or older or pregnant – must immediately be removed from isolated confinement.
“For children, the elderly, pregnant women and those with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities, the effects of solitary confinement – which can have a damaging effect on anyone – are downright devastating,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), chair of the Assembly Human Services Committee. “As New Jersey works to reform its criminal justice system by prohibiting the arbitrary overuse of solitary confinement, it’s important that we emphasize protecting members of these vulnerable populations.”
“In some cases, solitary confinement is necessary for the safety of inmates and employees at a correctional facility. In many others, however, it simply is inhumane and leads to permanent damage,” said Gusciora (D-Mercer/Hunterdon). “There is nothing that justifies this form of abuse. New Jersey has an obligation to put an end to unnecessary solitary confinement of inmates.”
“Regardless of the label – whether it’s ‘isolated confinement,’ ‘segregation,’ or ‘disciplinary detention’ – treating people humanely and keeping New Jersey’s correctional facilities safe are not, and should not be, mutually exclusive,” said Muoio (D-Mercer/Hunterdon).
The bill was advanced by the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee.