As director of American Friends Service Committee's Prison Watch Program in Newark, Bonnie Kerness has heard countless tales from prisoners who say they can't handle the mental torture and fatigue of isolated confinement. Some have been stuck there for years with no end in sight.

Andy Sacks, Getty Images
Andy Sacks, Getty Images

"I'm tired of these people treating me like an animal," one prisoner wrote her from New Jersey State Prison. "I'm afraid when I do return to the free world. I will not know how to behave in company," said another.

That's why Kerness is part of a push in New Jersey that would require no inmate be placed in solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days, or for more than 20 days in a 60-day period — a "radical" change from the way things are today, she says.

"Solitary confinement is inhuman," Kerness told New Jersey 101.5. "It is torture. We are not solitary human beings."

Kerness noted the United States is one of the few countries in the world that imprisons as many people as it does, and has as many prisoners living in isolation.

In addition to restricting the length of stay for isolation inmates, the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, sponsored by Nancy Pinkin (D) in the Assembly, would provide protections for these prisoners before and during their confinement.

Under the bill, no inmate could be placed in isolated confinement for non-disciplinary reasons. According to Kerness, prisoners are often sentenced to isolation for "no reason at all."

And if the bill becomes law, inmates would have the right to a hearing within 72 hours of placement, as well as representation at that hearing. In addition, a daily checkup from a clinician would be required to make sure the prisoner is fit to handle the conditions.

The measure blocks the use of solitary confinement against members of a "vulnerable population," such as the elderly, mentally-disabled and those who have shown signs of hurting themselves.

"An individual might be in solitary for years without really having any therapeutic intervention," Assemblywoman Pinkin said.

A companion bill in the Senate, Sponsored by state Senator Ray Lesniak (D), was approved by the full house in June. The Assembly version is awaiting a committee hearing.

The New Jersey Department of Corrections would not comment on pending legislation.

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