Efforts are being ramped up to clamp down on the use of solitary or isolated confinement in New Jersey prisons.

The state Department of Corrections says it does not use solitary confinement anymore — but some are questioning that claim.

A coalition of survivors, families and advocates called the New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement is calling on lawmakers to pass the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, which would dramatically limit the use of this practice, which some call a form of torture.

Tess Borden, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said the ACLU, a participant in the campaign, strongly supports the measure, “which is really in the vanguard of good, sound smart justice correctional policy.”

“It prohibits anyone from being in solitary confinement for more than 15 days consecutively, or 20 days individually in a 60-day period," Borden said.

She said the legislation would also prohibit anyone from certain vulnerable populations from ever being put in solitary confinement for even a period of one day.

“That includes people who are pregnant, that includes people who are 21 or under, 65 or older, people who are LGBTQ, people with serious medical conditions," she said.

The bill also requires medical and mental health screenings both before and while someone is in solitary confinement. It would also require data collection and reporting.

“One of the things we know about isolation is it literally puts people into a black hole, it takes them out of sight, and we want to make sure that out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind," Borden said.

She said solitary or isolated confinement is cruel and unnecessary.

“When you remove someone from human contact, when you lock them in a cell for 20 hours or more per day, you break their mind, you break their bodies, you break their souls," Borden said.

She also said solitary confinment causes lifelong trauma and even physical illness that can last for years.

Borden said other techniques that are used to discipline prisoners have been shown to be more effective for the offenders, as well as the rest of the prison population, increasing safety for guards and inmates.

She said the measure now being considered is identical to legislation passed in 2016, that was vetoed by then-Gov. Chris Christie, who at the time said New Jersey doesn’t have solitary confinement.

That assertion is being echoed by the current acting Department of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks, who declined to be interviewed but released an emailed statement saying the state uses "restrictive housing."

The full statement is below:

“The New Jersey Department of Corrections does not utilize isolated/solitary confinement The department does, however, utilize restrictive housing for inmates whose continued presence in general population poses a serious threat to life, property, self, staff or other inmates. Restrictive housing and isolation/solitary confinement are not interchangeable terms. Restrictive housing is a necessary tool designed to support a safe and productive environment for facility staff and inmates, as well as to create a path for inmates housed in these units to successfully transition to less restrictive housing.”

“While in restrictive housing, inmates receive continuous medical and mental health services and are offered out-of-cell opportunities to interact with staff and other inmates to facilitate pro-social behavior , ncluding visits from social workers and chaplaincy services, education and recreation. Additionally, these inmates are afforded telephone privileges as well as visits with friends and family.”

“It doesn’t matter what you call it. You put someone in a cell for 20 hours or more per day, it’s solitary confinement," Borden said. "You can call it administrative segregation, which the DOC does, you can call it management control unit, or MCU which the DOC does, you can call it protective custody, which the DOC does, you can call it temporary closed custody, which the DOC does, you can call it any number of names, but if it is 20 hours or more in a cell, that’s solitary confinement.”

“Our prisons are meant to rehabilitate, but solitary confinement does not rehabilitate," she said.

The measure under consideration would apply to state prisons as well as County correctional facilities.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.

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