A call to end the ‘torture’ of isolated confinement in NJ prisons
New Jersey lawmakers could soon pass the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, which would limit how the Department of Corrections holds prisoners in solitary situations. The DOC insists solitary confinement is no longer used, but they say they do segregate some inmates if they pose a danger to others.
Mercer County resident Lydia Thornton, who was sent to prison for theft by deception for more than four years, insists she was held in what amounted to solitary confinement for more than nine months in 2013, describing the experience as “hopeless torture.”
The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment." But Thornton said said her time in solitary was a time of hopeless, humiliation and fear.
She agreed to become a spokesperson for the New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement because severe isolation becomes a form of torture, and its counter-productive because instead of making correctional facilities safer it increases the danger.
“Some of the worst injuries I saw for corrections officers and prisoners were in AD SEG, trying to remove someone from a cell, trying to get someone who is psychotic contained," she said.
Thornton, who admits she broke the law by forging three checks for someone she knew who was losing their home during the foreclosure crisis, said at the time she was housed in what was called an Administrative Segregation Unit, which was used as a form of punishment for breaking the rules.
“In my case, I had been put in a halfway house in Paterson about six to eight months into my incarceration. I tried for months to get a job, which was a requirement, and finally got frustrated and walked away from the halfway house. Not my best decision, but that’s the reality of what I did.”
After she was caught, she was sentenced to a year in what was referred to as "Ad Seg."
Because there is only one women’s correctional facility in the Garden State, she said the Administrative Segregation unit for women was housed in a wing of the men's New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.
“I was housed there in a approximately 9-by-12 cell. It’s all cinder block, a steel bed attached to the wall with a 2-inch foam mat on it and a toilet-sink combination in the corner and a steel desk attached to the wall," she recalled.
She said she was in her cell 24 hours a day, except on shower days when she got to leave for 30 minutes.
Thornton said most people would assume solitary confinement is quiet, but in a cinder block cell with a steel door it was the exact opposite.
“You’re yelling back and forth to have conversations, people are pounding on their steel door for hours on end with their feet, with their fists. They’re screaming," she said.
“Some people are screaming simply to hear the noise reverberate to know they are alive because isolation is something that creates questions in even the sanest among us.”
Thornton believes the effect of being alone for so long makes you question who you are, where you are and what will happen to you tomorrow and the next day.
“I’ve heard women scream for hours they want to die, that they want to kill themselves, and have no one come to check on them, and then have that same woman go dead silent," she said.
“I was in a room all by myself listening to other people scream, making sure it was other people screaming and not somehow voices in my head at some point.”
Department of Corrections spokesman Matt Schuman said in an emailed response to a request for an interview that when inmates are segregated from the general population they are “offered out-of-cell opportunities to interact with staff and other inmates to facilitate pro-social behavior, as well as receive continuous medical and mental health services and visits from social workers and educators.”
He added: “It also should be noted that significant changes in the Department’s restrictive housing protocol have occurred since the 2013. For example, while in restrictive housing, inmates are offered congregate educational and social services. Additional recreation is provided to inmates. Inmates have access to JPay (available services include inmate banking, email, inquiry/grievance application, music, games and E-books).
Thornton said she was offered what was termed recreation three days a week but she only did that once.
“Recreation consists of you being strip searched — do the squat and cough thing and all that — put your cloths back on, be shackled and handcuffed to walk outside to be put in what I call a dog run.”
She said the area was a fenced enclosure, “similar to how you keep dogs in your yard, and you could walk or do pushups or whatever you wanted for two hours.”
Before returning to her cell she was again strip-searched and body searched.
“For me I did that once in nine and half months. I decided my dignity was worth more than going outside in the dog run.”
"Mental health care is non-existent," she said. She explained someone would come to her cell door and ask “how’s your mental health today,” and if you said OK or not so good, the person would say “OK, here’s some Sudoku puzzles to keep you going.”
If you tell the person you are in bad shape, she said you’re forcibly removed from your cell, searched and then strapped into a containment chair until you say you’re feeling better. And it’s all done where everyone can hear what’s going on.
Thornton added no matter if you call solitary confinement Administrative Segregation or restrictive housing, “the feeling is hopelessness. I think a lack of connection with the outside world other than with people whose job is to manage and control you is a massive problem.”
Thornton said after being in solitary for months she was given a small radio and she listened to New Jersey 101.5.
“I lived for your station, just so you know.”
You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com