Lydia Thornton on Solitary Confinement: How am I going to make it through today?

In 2013, Lydia Thornton, then 52, spent nine and a half months in solitary confinement in New Jersey. She is now an advocate working to end the continuing abuses against people who are incarcerated, the homeless, and most importantly those coming home. Lydia spoke with Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg for NJ-CAIC about solitary confinement, or as it is referred to in New Jersey, Administrative Segregation. The interview has been edited with Lydia for clarity.

How long are you locked in your cell per day?

What shocks people is that it is 24 hours some days. Three times a week you get out for a shower and you walk down this row and you go to shower, which is locked and come back.  If you take longer than 7-8 minutes they will turn the water either off, or to cold only.

What was a typical day in solitary?

As I recall, start time generally 5:30, 6 a.m.. Somebody will pound on your door to make sure that you move. The verification is that you're still alive. It really is that simple. If you move, they move on. If you don't, they keep pounding. It's like their job is to ensure that you survived the night and that's an odd statement even coming out of my mouth.

And then breakfast somewhere around 7. And then it's just, you figure out what you're going to do with your day because you're not going anywhere. It's like, “How am I going to make it through today without losing my damn mind?”

Whether you read, whether you write, there are too many hours. If you have been "well-behaved" enough to get a TV or afford to buy one or afford to buy a radio. NPR became my best friend because somebody left me a radio. NPR out of Philly.

And then you just lay there, maybe do some stretching -- and what are you going to do until 11:30 when it's lunch? Then what are you going to do until 4 when it's dinner? You do control your own lights unless they decide to turn them all on. If everybody's making too much noise they'll just turn them all on at night and leave until everybody shuts up.

The officers walk by once an hour to check -- it's not that you're still there because you couldn't get out, it's whether you're still breathing. If you need something or want something in between? Tough luck, you wait until the hour because nobody's coming before that.

I have heard people yell for a guard for 20 minutes straight because somebody next to them said they were going to hurt themselves, or you could hear them fall, or something happened. No one will come because it's not their hour to walk.

Do you ever get to go outside?

Three days a week it's mandatory that you are Offered to go outside in what they call ‘recreation’ and I call a dog run, because that's what it is. It's fully fenced, including the top.

I went out once, and said I'd never do it again and I didn't. Outside sounds like a wonderful break, I chose not to go because you're strip searched to go outside. You strip in your cell. They watch you and check your clothes. Give your clothes back. You put all your clothes back on. You go outside and you walk around in a circle in this dog run for two hours.

If it's too cold, too hot, too whatever, doesn't matter, they don't bring you back in. The only caveat is if, I think, it starts raining while you're out there, they have to bring you back in. But you can't come back in otherwise - so if you need to go to the bathroom, doesn't matter. You stay out until everyone comes back in and then you're strip searched again.

Well, for me, strip searches are one of those things that are such an affront to dignity that I swore going outside was just not worth it.

How did solitary confinement impact you?

I will tell you, to this day I can't stand noise; because noise reverberates off steel doors and off cinder block walls. It echoes. Part of the noise is because the only way you can communicate with each other is to yell through the steel door.  The other part is people screaming just to know that they are alive.

Can you talk about the kind of contact you had with other people when you were in solitary?

In terms of human contact it is less than none because all of it is negative. You would actually be better off with none.

There was one young lady -- she had mental health issues to begin with. She would flip out and just get tired of it all -- the guards, her head, get done with all of it. She would pound her head, try to do something to hurt herself and they would take her out for a day and then bring her right back. And it was an ongoing thing at some point she and I started talking. She liked me because I was quiet.  She was housed two doors down from me, and would say hi if she walked to the showers.

One day she had punched her wall, repeatedly. I could hear her. She was yelling about something. She was upset about something. She'd be punching her wall.

This young lady was walking to the shower and she put her hand in my food port to show me how badly hurt it was. And my instinct being me, being a mother, the first thing I did was kind of gently stroke it. You just reach out. That's what normal humans do. She looked at me and started to cry. And I was like, “I'm so sorry, I didn't even think that that must have hurt like hell when I touched it.” She shook her head and kept going to the shower. As she came back from the shower, I was standing at my door. I said, “Are you okay? I'm so sorry I hurt you.”

She's like, “No, you don't understand. That's the first time I've been touched by other than a guard with any kind of kindness in two years.” It broke me. I was done.

The only touch you have is to drag you out of the cell or to put handcuffs on you or to escort you. These aren't people who give a damn about you. They're people whose job it is to move you to point A to point B, or to stop you from doing whatever you're doing. Not saying all guards are bad. There are decent people in there but they have a job to do. Their job is NOT to create positive human impact.

How would you define solitary in one word?

Torture. Because humans were not designed to be in complete isolation for long periods of time.

More than 90 percent of the individual humans sitting in prison right now, no matter what level of housing they're sitting in, are coming home at some point, whether it's next week, next year, next decade, they're coming to our communities.

People ask me a lot, why should I care? They're prisoners. They earned their spot there. They, they, they.

You should care because at some point they're coming back to your community. How do you want them to come back? Better or worse?

You're appalled by the crime they originally committed. You want them angrier, less stable, less healthy or do you want them to actually be able to become part of your community?

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Ron Pierce: Solitary confinement is designed to break the human spirit

Ron Pierce is the Democracy and Justice Fellow at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. During his more than 30 years of incarceration in New Jersey prisons, he spent a total of about four years in solitary confinement. He spoke with Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg for NJ-CAIC about his time in solitary and how solitary is designed to break the human spirit. The interview has been edited with Ron for clarity.

When were you allowed outside of your cell?

You get an hour and a half of yard every other day. Other than that you stay in your cell. That's where your mind can play tricks on you. Everybody's yelling back and forth to each other but there's no contact.

There was one guy on one side of me had such a mental breakdown that he was literally in his cell by himself having a fight with his girlfriend every night. Throwing himself against the wall, yelling at her, beating himself up, trying to beat her up too.

On the other side, the guy painted his cell with his own feces. He had to have constant observation and his light was attached to mine, so 24 hours a day my light was on. Because I only have one eye that closes and one eye doesn't close, it was hard to get sleep. I had to sleep with the pillow over my head. 

I was glad to have kept as many faculties as I have.

What was your access to showers?

You got a shower every morning if you woke early enough to catch the officer as they ran past your cell.

How do you respond when people say that it’s not solitary if two people are in the cell?

Solitary confinement if you're by yourself is bad. Solitary confinement if you're with somebody else, constantly in this small space together -- it's worse. I would recommend try living in a bathroom size room with one other person for a short time and maybe it would give you an understanding of why it is worse.

How has solitary impacted you?

It still has an impact on me. The thing about that is I know what it was. I knew. I studied enough. It's as limited on me as it can be but I still find myself -- if the noise is too loud—getting tense or if I get put in a small room I still feel... if I get closed in an office it's not good. I was never a claustrophobic person, but now I find myself very conscious about entrances and exits.

When I moved into the Highland Park house, I was on the top floor and each of us had our own room. When I was in that room and the door was closed I felt trapped. I moved up to Secaucus. I have a basement, I have a yard. I have the outside deck. I feel good but put me in a small closed area and I start to sweat. I can feel choking up. I feel my heart race.

What was the hardest part of being in solitary confinement?

The hardest thing was to maintain civility because you get edgy about everything. I can give you one instance. There was a guy I went to high school with who became a social worker. He was walking around seeing if anybody needed his assistance and he spotted me.

He started trying to hold a conversation. To this day, I don't know why but I snapped at him -- “Get away from me.” I started yelling at him and I still don't know why and I never saw him again since then to apologize to him.

I had just finished my 30 days in the hole when I told you about the people on either side of me. I was in that cell. I was badly sleep deprived and I hadn't had a shower in a couple days so I was highly agitated when he came to the door.

All he wanted was -- “Do you need anything? Do you need any help?” I ran him off. I think I scared him and I didn't mean to but that's just where my head was at the time. I'll always remember that. I hope one day to come across him to apologize to him and just let him know that wasn't me. That was just a ghost from somewhere within.

How did you survive solitary?

I had a routine. I didn't want to numb myself with the TV. I would watch the morning news until nine. I would put the TV under the locker freeing my desk to write on. I would study/write from 9 to 5. Five o’clock I would eat. Six o’ clock I would bring the TV back up and I would watch TV ‘til I went to bed. That was the routine I had.

I went out in the yard because you have to get out of the cell once in a while. But the problem with going to the yard is as soon as you go to the yard, the officers come in, tear your cell up. That's their way of saying -- “You shouldn't go to the yard.” I didn't care. I went to the yard anyway.

That's how I was able to sustain. You have to develop a routine.

Some guys they'll play chess. They'll call a chess move out to the guy they're playing with. He'll call a chess move back. And they'll have made pieces of crumpled up papers so they know where every piece is. That's how people survive. If you don't keep your mind active then you're going lose a piece of it.

How would you respond to claims that New Jersey does not use solitary confinement?

I would say -- take me to 7 Wing in Trenton and show me that it's not a solitary confinement unit. Take me into Bordentown Ad Seg unit and show me it's not a solitary confinement unit. Just because you house two people in a cell doesn't make it less solitary confinement. It actually makes it worse.

What is phase one of administrative segregation if it's not solitary confinement? Phase one is the replacement of Disciplinary Detention.  You're not allowed any property. You're not allowed any radio, any TV. Your yard time is one hour every two days or one and a half hours every two days. What do you call solitary confinement? Just because two people are in an 8 by 12 room doesn't make it less solitary confinement. That's just a total, total out and out lie.

If you could choose one word to describe solitary confinement, what would it be?

Torture. That's all it is. It's a mental deprivation. It's meant to break you, to take your humanity from you. That's what it's designed to do. It's designed to take your mental stability away from you so that they can control you and that's why a lot of the isolation units are called control units or management units.

Administrative segregation is the administration segregating you from the rest of the population but for the purpose of control. It's meant to make you passive by breaking your human spirit. That's why I would call it torture.

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Mark Hopkins: Solitary confinement is torture

Mark Hopkins spent more than 180 days in solitary confinement in New Jersey. He was first tortured by solitary confinement when he was 16 years old. He is now a graduate student at Rutgers-New Brunswick and an organizer with AAUP-AFT.

Below is Mark’s interview with Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg for NJ-CAIC:

What was your first experience with solitary confinement?

I was 16.

One of my cousins was a gangbanger. In his mail he'd sign off with a gang greeting and he was sending it to me from a juvenile facility.

I was in Garden State Youth Correctional Facility/Yardville. They ran down to my room like a standard raid. When they went into my room, they went through all my mail and saw that at the end of the letter. The letter itself had nothing do with anything gang related at all. It was just - “How you doing? I know you just got all this time. Keep your head up.”

They sent me into solitary confinement by saying I had gang materials, STG material -- ‘Security Threat Group’ material. They gave me, I think it was 15 days in solitary confinement.

It's just bars. They strip you of anything that you could possibly use to kill yourself so no shoelaces. Just the fireproof blanket that they give you. Then three hots and a cot. No other contact whatsoever. Shower every other day. When you want to leave you have to go with two officers. You'll be cuffed at your back. When you walk by in the facility everybody else that's in the hallway or can see you, has to turn around and not face you and give you their back.

You're completely ostracized from the general population.

When did you next go into solitary confinement?

A year or so later, I was 17. This was 2008, 2009.

I did 15 days of solitary confinement and then they added 180 days of administrative segregation. [Administrative segregation is solitary confinement but in a separate unit in another building.]

I was in Garden State Youth Correctional Facility and now I'm in Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility. Once I went to Wagner my family didn't even know where I was. No one even knows where I'm at. I'm in the ad seg unit. I'm still 17. I didn't have the greatest family support but I still had family that would still expect me to call at least once a month.

When you go into the ad seg unit, two officers are escorting you. You're cuffed. They take you into this cage type of holding cell. It's open to the rest of the rooms in the entire ad seg building. Everybody's door faces this center spot and you're strip searched.

You're standing there naked. They'll cuff you while you were naked and go through all your things and do the paperwork to transfer you over.

Once they transfer you over to the housing officer then they'll tell you to put your clothes on.

What was it like when you walked into the administrative segregation unit?

The experience going in is shocking. Everyone's yelling through the door. When you first come in, everyone wants to know who you are and if they know you because people are trying to find human connections at the end of the day.

When you come in there and you don't understand, people will think -- “Damn, people are just yelling at you from this way, from that way.”

But what's actually happening is people are trying to find other human connections. They're trying to see if it's someone they know and then they want to be like - “Yeah, you're going to be good, this is easy, you're going to be alright.”

Because the officer that's housed there doesn't want to hear the yelling, they put this huge thick newspaper and industrial fan that's blowing so the blades are smacking the newspaper. So it's that sound on top of everybody yelling 24/7 and then you just hear the gates and cuffs moving.

You were a juvenile at this time -- did that affect how you were treated?

They realized I was a juvenile when they were first admitting me in. They were like - “Yo, Sarge, we can't have him in the room with anybody because he's a juvenile so what do we do?” They're like - “Just put him in the room by his fucking self.”

So they put me in a room by myself.

How did you make connections with other people?

Whoever was in the cell next to me, I don't know what he looks like, I just know his hand is a white hand.

I was in the room every night just having these mental breakdowns.

He must have heard me one of those nights talking to myself, breaking down crying. He was like -- “Yo, you need a cigarette?” And I was like - “Hell, yeah, I need a cigarette.” So he gave me half a pack of cigarettes which is valuable as hell. He said, “If you just give me a Reese's, I'll buy a pack of cigarettes for you.” So I started doing that. He was giving it to me just because he knew I needed it. I trade cigarettes with him and then we'd talk a little bit.

What was your access to showers?

My hygiene started to decline exponentially fast.

The first shift officers will pop the door open for two seconds. You have to rush to the door, put your hand out -- “Yo, yo, yo, give me the shower, I'm up.”

I didn't shower for weeks at a time. I had no shower for weeks.

Were you able to leave your cell to exercise?

The only other way to take your mind off things would be exercising. They know by law they have to give us 5 hours worth of exercise in a week. You had to put your name on a list and you had to get on that list by staying up and giving your name to the third shift officer at 4:00 in the morning.

Rec is at 11:00 AM or noon. You had to be up all morning and then hopefully -- because you don't have an alarm clock and usually you're not allowed to have electronics until you're on a certain phase so there's no way to know the time -- you just have to guess and you can't take a nap because nobody's going to wake you up so you're basically just up that whole day.

You got to dedicate your mind to staying up throughout that entire night, all the way up until you can put your name on that list, all the way until it's time to go out for rec. You go outside into this small little cage and workout, talk to other people.

Those 2.5 hours isn't the whole 2.5 hours. You're only getting 45 minutes outside.

Everything that's supposed to be put in place for you to have human contact or to somehow soften the blow of the torture solitary confinement is based upon is slow, non-working or just completely inoperable to the point where it's nonexistent.

What happened to your education while you were in solitary confinement?

I was in high school at the time, still supposed to be doing my educational work. They slide a packet of fifth grade math and literacy and say -- “Okay, there's your school work that you have to do.” I remember going -- “This is below what I need to do. Don't give me this.”

They basically ignored me on that front completely so my whole education was stopped. It was paused right there.

What impact did solitary confinement have on your mental health?

I mentally started to deteriorate in ways in which I can't even explain.

No night I was able to go to sleep so the only way for me to try to go to sleep is I'd take my sweater, I don't care how cold it was -- it was cold as hell sometimes because the heating and ventilation systems obviously suck -- so it was cold as hell. I had a little fireproof blanket and I just had a shirt on. I took my sweater and tied the pillow around my head and stuffed my ears with toilet paper just enough so I can try to get some sort of quieter atmosphere. Even to this day I still sleep with a pillow on my head. I don't even need to anymore but I still think of a bug crawling in my ear.

You were sent back to solitary in 2011 or 2012. Why were sent back to solitary confinement?

I'm a model inmate. I go to school. I got a job. On the tier, I'm quiet.

One of my close friends was arrested and they were facing a lot of time so I wanted to get in contact with him. I had asked one of the educational staff members if they could get the information for me so I can write him, send a letter out.

I consider this person like my brother. So I got information on him. She was like -- “Do you want me to get anybody else?” I'm like -- “Yeah, get my cousin too because my cousin just got arrested too.” I'm like - this is great, I'm going to be able to write my cousin. I hadn't contacted him in years. I'm going to be able to write my brother.

She prints their face sheets out for me in color. It's not really a big deal. We can write other inmates. That's not an issue. How I got the information was not according to the rules.

I had a standard pat down. He pats me down and sees the papers. We can have each other's information in order to write each other but we can't have a full face sheet even though it's open to the public on inmate search.

They were trying to find where I got the information from. I'm not going to tell you where I got it from. I'm not threatening nobody's job that feeds their kids because it's two pieces of paper you all feel seriously about.

I got 15 days solitary confinement and 90 days ad seg.

How do the officers treat people in solitary confinement?

Officers respond to us as if we're constant threats and because of that the only way that they feel comfortable controlling us is through aggression and violence and retaliation and hate for little minor things.

The only time they open your port is for them to insert your trays which they always threaten to not give you. All the time. If they don't like you or if you all shared words while you're behind your door, the officer can completely within their power say -- “You're not eating today. You're not eating all day. You might not eat this week. You better tell your bunkie to share it with you.”

They might just give the bunkie the tray and won't give you the tray. You know your bunkie's not going to let you starve so you're both going to have to survive off of a meal for one person for a whole week or so. They did that shit constantly.

You were in solitary confinement one more time -- in January of 2017 -- when you had been living in a halfway house. Can you tell me about that?

I had got sent back from a halfway house. They had thought I was intoxicated. My blood and my urine and my eyes and my on-spot nurse exam had said -- not only was I sober but I was in my complete right mind.

I had OD'd on a leg workout and turned a corner and stumbled a little bit and they thought I was drunk.

They assume when you come in from the halfway house it's because you were intoxicated so what they do is strip you completely naked. They put you in an anti-suicide suit and then for 3 days you are on camera, light is constantly on. No bed, no sheets, no anything, no forks, no spoons to even eat your food so you have to eat your food with the corner of the styrofoam.

I was there for three days in the suicide part and then another two days on a regular solitary confinement ward.

It was very torturous experience because I had come so far to come back right there. The whole thing is mentally, physically and emotionally torturing.

A couple guys were trying to kill themselves. One guy across from me was screaming, banging his head on the glass until it was just blood everywhere. He was eating his own fecal matter. The only thing they did with him would just beat him up more and then strap him to a chair and then put a needle in him after he begged them not to -- “I'm gonna calm down, I'm gonna calm down.” They just put the needle in him anyway.

What is one word you would use to describe solitary confinement?

Torture. Simple as that.

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Justice Rountree: Solitary confinement must be ended

NJ-CAIC organizer and solitary survivor Justice Rountree writes for the Asbury Park Press:

I served 23 years inside New Jersey prisons and jails, and I witnessed firsthand the damage caused by inhumane housing practices. I witnessed the dilapidated conditions of these “restrictive housing” units, which housed not only humans, but rats, mice, roaches and mold. I watched strong men mentally deteriorate, and I watched sick men become swallowed up by their physical and mental illnesses. As a paralegal, I represented people who were at risk of prolonged isolation not just for violent behavior or institutional safety, but also for petty, political, or even retaliatory reasons.

I spent a total of five years in isolation. I counted and re-counted every crack in the ceiling. I survived the extreme cold of winter, the extreme heat of summer, the haunting screams of other isolated people, and the eerie silence that nearly convinced me I was alone and forgotten.


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Nafeesah Goldsmith: Solitary Confinement is Diabolical

In 2006, Nafeesah Goldsmith was 26 years old when she was placed in solitary confinement for 60 days at New Jersey State Prison. She was locked in her cell for 23 hours a day, sometimes 24 hours a day.

Nafeesah was released from prison on June 23, 2015 and is now pursuing a Master’s degree at Monmouth University and works as a community organizer with New Jersey Together.

Nafeesah spoke with Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg for NJ-CAIC about her experience with solitary confinement:

What was your access to showers and feminine hygiene products?

We were supposed to shower every day but a lot of times, depending on how the officers feel you may not get out to shower for a few days.

If you don't have any sanitary napkins and you ask for some, some of the officers will say to you, “Use a sock or use toilet paper because they don't feel like going to go get those things for you.”

What was it like to be denied sanitary napkins?

You felt like an animal. You felt just like an animal. Like, come on. I'm a human being. You know, regardless of what reason I'm in prison. I'm still a human being and it makes you feel, it makes you feel like shit. That's what it makes you feel like.

Can you describe a typical day and night in solitary?

Breakfast around 6 am. Many of us wouldn’t like the food so most times I would just sleep through breakfast. I might try to have the coffee but that was horrible. Therefore, you may want to save a piece of toast or boiled egg to eat for later.

But for the most part I would sleep until about lunch.

I read quite a bit. And that's how you escape so writing letters, listening to music was a pass-time because you have your Walkman radio. That was it for me.

Usually what happens is right after lunch you can go out to rec [but] it has to be your rec day. You have to be stripped in your cell. You can't have any clothes on when they come and you have to pass your clothes through the slot to the officers. While you're in your cell they can see you through glass and instruct you on what do -- raising your feet, squatting and coughing, lifting your breasts, checking your mouth. That was a part of the procedure just going out to rec.

At night it all depends on who was next door to your cell. You could stay up and talk to them or find some sort of entertainment like we would do things that were really entertaining for us. We would play games like “In the mix.” Someone would sing a song and they'd sing it up until a certain point and then they'll say -- “In the mix.” Then the next person would pick up where they left off. We would do that for hours.

We'd play hangman. All sorts of stuff just to try to keep ourselves from going crazy.

How did you play hangman?

Basically you would tell the person however many spaces was for the phrase or the word and say, “name of a person, place or thing.” And you'd tell them how many spaces it is. They will just start guessing letters and as they start to fill it out they're also writing it down on their paper in their cell and that's how we would do it.

How would you explain solitary?

I would describe it as being an animal in a cage. That's it. There's no fancy way to paint the picture.

Why is it important to speak out?

We have to take ownership of our own stories and experiences. Our oppressors are the ones who normally take ownership of the narrative and it's never the right story therefore, I would rather speak up and state my name and let my truth be told because if I don't do it, somebody else will and it won't be my experience.

How would you describe solitary with one word?

Diabolical. Because it is. Only an evil mind would think to create a system where you lock people away. It's like being in a dungeon. That's evil as shit.

Do you have anything else to add?

I would say that when referencing individuals who have experience with solitary confinement, the term survivor should be used--  It shows that the individual is a human being who survived conditions that the masses will never fathom. I think when we do talk about this we definitely have to make it known as to why we are survivors, because we are.

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NJ-CAIC October 2018 Newsletter

News from New Jersey:

New Report on Solitary Released: New Jersey subjects its prisoners to longer durations in isolated confinement than most states, according to reports published by the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) and the Arthur Liman Center at Yale Law School. The report found that New Jersey ranks fourth in the country in the number of its prisoners who are held in isolation for more than six years. New Jersey also disproportionately uses solitary confinement against Black and Hispanic prisoners. Over two-thirds of all isolated women and over three-fourths of all isolated men are “Black” or “Hispanic,” according to the report.

Local Media Highlights Work to End Solitary in New Jersey: Check out this segment from NJTV on the Liman report, featuring Rev. Charles Boyer and Lydia Thompson. And check out this report from NJ101.5 with Rev. Boyer and Justice Rountree.

Media Training for Solitary Survivors: On Saturday, October 6 survivors of solitary confinement from New Jersey and New York attended an all-day media training at the Columbia University School of Social Work. Among the day’s presenters were Justice Rountree and Amos Caley with NJ-CAIC; Khalil Cumberbatch, Associate Vice-President of Policy at The Fortune Society; Marlon Peterson, host of the Decarcerated podcast; and Johnny Perez, Director of U.S. Prisons Programs for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

Survivors’ Stories: NJ-CAIC has launched a storytelling project to interview survivors of solitary confinement. These stories will be shared with members of the public and legislators to build support for the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act (A.314). If you are interested in sharing your story, please contact Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg at elizabethwg@gmail.com.  

National News:

Unlock the Box: Advocates from across the country have joined to launch the Unlock the Box campaign, with the goal of ending #SolitaryConfinement in the next ten years. To learn more, visit unlocktheboxcampaign.org and help us #StopSolitary.


NJ101.5: Rats and Mold? Isolated confinement at NJ prisons called 'horrific'

NJ101.5 reports:

Whether the state wants to call it solitary confinement or restrictive housing, isolation of inmates is used too often and for too long in New Jersey, and conditions of the living quarters are horrific, social justice advocates say.

They're hoping a measure vetoed by former Gov. Chris Christie, which would restrict the use of isolated confinement in correctional facilities, will have a better shot under the current administration.

Newark resident Justice Rountree, who's spent at least five years total in isolation while serving a 23-year prison sentence, said the accommodations are torturous at best.

NJTV: Report re-energizes push to end solitary confinement in state

Check out this segment from NJTV on the recent report on solitary confinement and its use in New Jersey:

“This further underlines the huge racial disparities in New Jersey. Not only in regards to who was targeted for prisons, but how they’re treated while they are in prison,” said Rev. Charles Boyer, director of Salvation and Social Justice. In New Jersey, more than two-thirds of the women and three-fourths of the men in isolated confinement are Black or Latino, according to a new Yale Law School state correctional administrators study.

Solitary Survivors Gather in New York for Media Training

On Saturday, October 6 survivors of solitary confinement from New Jersey and New York attended an all-day media training at the Columbia University School of Social Work.

“The US has about 100,000 people locked up in solitary. We account for half of the world’s population in isolation,” Johnny Perez, Director of U.S. Prisons Programs for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, told the participants. “What this room has to offer is solutions.”

Among the day’s speakers were Marlon Peterson, host of the Decarcerated podcast, and Justice Rountree and Amos Caley of the New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (NJ-CAIC.)

“I never looked at myself as an inmate,” said Rountree. “I never looked at myself as an offender. I looked at myself as a prisoner held against my will.”

The day’s presenters highlighted the importance of survivors leading the work to end solitary confinement.

“Experience in the criminal justice system qualifies us to be an activist, an advocate, an analyst,” said Khalil Cumberbatch, Associate Vice-President of Policy at The Fortune Society. “I served six and a half years. That is my qualifier.”

NJ-CAIC is working to pass the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act (A.314), which would ban, with the exception of emergencies, isolation for more that 15 consecutive days, and no more than 20 days per 60-day period. It would also prohibit any member of vulnerable populations, as classified by clinical staff, from being placed in isolation. Vulnerable populations include people aged 21 and younger, people aged 55 and older, people with developmental disability, people with a disability based on mental illness, people with serious medical conditions, and people who are pregnant. For more information on A.314 and the movement to end solitary in New Jersey, please visit the NJ-CAIC website.

The New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (NYCAIC) is advocating for passage of the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act in the New York State Legislature. More information on NYCAIC’s work can be found on their website.

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New Jersey Relies Heavily on ‘Restrictive Housing,’ New Study Reveals

New Jersey subjects its prisoners to longer durations in isolated confinement than most states, according to reports published this week by the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) and the Arthur Liman Center at Yale Law School.

New Jersey ranks fourth in the country in the number of its prisoners who are held in isolation for more than six years. The report defines “restrictive housing” as the process of “separating prisoners from the general population and holding them in their cells for an average of 22 hours or more per day for 15 continuous days or more,” which aligns with the definition for “solitary confinement” used by national and international human rights groups.

“This report provides data that the New Jersey Department of Corrections intentionally withheld from the general public and from legislators and advocates calling for reform,” said Justice Rountree, a community activist with New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (NJ-CAIC) and a survivor of solitary confinement in New Jersey. “Both former Corrections Commissioner Gary Lanigan as well as former Governor Chris Christie denied the very existence of prisoner isolation in New Jersey correctional facilities.”

Chris Christie vetoed the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act in 2016, attaching a memorandum that claimed, “this Administration does not utilize isolated confinement.” The ASCA-Liman report conclusively contradicts Christie’s claim. In addition to the staggering rates and duration of prisoner isolation, New Jersey places female prisoners and people of color (“Black” and “Hispanic”) in isolation at higher rates than most other jurisdictions.

“As we suspected not only is solitary used regularly in New Jersey but it is disproportionately inflicted upon people of color. Justice and morality demand we find a better way! We can never rehabilitate and torture at the same time,” said Rev. Charles Boyer, pastor of Bethel AME church in Woodbury, NJ.

Importantly, because it relied heavily on the self-reporting of state correctional departments, it left room for partial reporting, statistical error, or even outright fabrication.

For instance, in the section devoted to reporting on “Prisoners with Serious Mental Illnesses (SMI, variously defined),” it concludes that only one (1) prisoner in the entire New Jersey Correctional system is housed in restrictive housing while also being classified as having a Serious Mental Illness (SMI).

“The claim that New Jersey holds only one person with a mental illness in solitary confinement would be laughable if it weren’t so patently false,” said Bonnie Kerness, Director of the Prison Watch Program at the American Friends Service Committee. “We’ve received thousands of letters from New Jersey over the past decade that testify to the intentional isolation of prisoners with special needs and mental health issues.”

Advocates are calling for urgent and substantial reform to the humane housing practices of the DOC, including protections for vulnerable populations, time restrictions, and greater procedural transparency.

“We call upon all legislators, Commissioner Marcus Hicks, and Governor Phil Murphy to carefully examine these reports and to work with impacted communities to find a better way forward,” said Rev. Boyer. “True correctional policies must protect human rights, promote public safety, and achieve true justice for all New Jersey residents. We must begin by ending torture. And this starts with passing meaningful legislation, like the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act (A.314), immediately.”

FREE EVENT June 3rd: End Torture, End Solitary Confinement

Following a successful event in Newark on February 25, 2018, NJ-CAIC and its members/partners are planning to host another, similar event in Trenton on June 3rd. The event will be a free program to discuss the issue of solitary confinement in New Jersey. The event will feature testimonies of survivors, statements from legislators, opportunities for involvement, and a virtual reality solitary cell.

The program will be held from 2:00 to 6:00pm at the Westminster Presbyterian Church, located at 1140 Greenwood Ave, Trenton, NJ 08609 (click for map). Tickets are free, but registration is required.

Light refreshments will be served, and the event is open to the public. Seating is limited, so register here.

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FREE EVENT Feb 25: End Torture, End Solitary Confinement

On February 25, 2018, NJ-CAIC and its members and partners are hosting a free program to discuss the issue of solitary confinement in New Jersey. The event will feature testimonies of survivors, statements from legislators, opportunities for involvement, and a virtual reality solitary cell.

The program will be held from 3:00 to 6:00pm at the Rutgers University Law Center, located at 123 Washington Street, Newark, NJ (click for map). Tickets are free, but registration is required.

Light refreshments will be served, and the event is open to the public. Seating is limited, so register here.

"Isolated Confinement Restriction Act" Reintroduced

 Asw. Nancy Pinkin

Asw. Nancy Pinkin

The Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, which passed through both houses of the NJ legislature in 2016 and received an absolute veto from Chris Christie, has been reintroduced as A314 and referred to the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee. 

The primary sponsors for A314 are Asw. Pinkin, Asw. Sumter, Asw. Vainieri Huttle, and Asm. Gusciora. There are an additional 15 co-sponsors for this bill. Senator Sandra Cunningham has agreed to reintroduce the companion bill into the Senate, but this reintroduction is still pending.

Please check out our updated one-page summary of the bill, with FAQs.

OPEN LETTER: "Disturbing and Credible"

The following letter was penned by a formerly incarcerated person, responding particularly to the first-hand testimonies of solitary confinement in New Jersey prisons. Jean Ross, esq. submitted this letter to NJCAIC for publication with the author's permission.

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Reading [the accounts of isolation] gave me a chill down my back. Not merely for the atrocities going on in the NJDOC, but because it brought back memories of my time in Ad Seg and STGMU [the "Security Threat Group Management Units"]. I can relate to this man's story and have seen similar mental breakdowns. This I saw, not only while I worked as a para-legal in Trenton--now referred to as New Jersey State Prison--but also while housed in Administrative Segregation in Rahway, before they closed it, and the Security Threat Group Management Unit, which they deemed a non-punitive program unit. However, though the concept of solitary confinement paints a picture of one person alone in their cage, isolated from the very human contact that is essential to humanity, there are units they claim as non-solitary because they house two individuals in that same cell. This situation is worse and aggressive behavior is exacerbated. A person becomes hyper-sensitive from living in too close quarters without hope of escape from the constant presence of this other individual.

While Mr. K and Mr. M may be extreme cases of solitary, there are many more than the hundreds that have been lost mentally to the torture of this inhumane practice. In 1992, after being in an altercation in the slop trough (Dining Hall), I was awarded a stay in "Disciplinary Detention" (the hole) and then a period in "Administrative Segregation" and shipped to Rahway Ad Seg to serve my isolated time because working as a para-legal in Trenton they felt I was too well known by the legal serving staff and I may receive preferential treatment (fair assessment). This however was also the time the prison administration closed down the mental health ward part of the DOC at the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, sending the majority of those with mental illness to Rahway Ad Seg. While housed in the unit, my neighbor on the right side as I look at the door would go in fits of rage for hours fighting with an imaginary other person, throwing this imaginary person (himself) against the wall screaming "take that bitch" and "ya think ya can get away from me," and you can hear through the doors and vents him punching himself, the cops at the podium making mock bets on who would win the next round. On the other side of me, a man painted his cell with his own feces while he was on constant observation. Across from me and after I was moved to tier 2 below me to the right, a guy getting forced medication, each day they would come in suited in full riot gear, rush his cell and drag him out, hold him prone on the concrete floor and then the nurse would come through the fences and give him a shot. So it appears little progress was made with the decree.

I do not have a history of mental illness, however while in these units I have experienced similar issues the writer experienced, also finding myself paranoid of others--even those of good will such as Social Workers--and developing more aggressive behavioral patterns. This remained with me after returning to general population and only slowly dissipated over a period of time when I started being able to focus and reflect on my behavior.

So the narrative relayed by this individual is both disturbing and credible and in need of address.  I hope something can be done; even we, the marginalized in society deserve to be treated humanely. If we had the right to vote, does anyone believe this would continue to be the blatant treatment delivered to this section of the citizenry?

GUEST EDITORIAL: "Dear Humanity..."

The following letter was written by a person incarcerated in NJ State Prison. It was received by Jean Ross, Esq., and is published with the author's permission.

Dear Humanity,

After being held in solitary confinement isolation for almost 8 years I have finally been released, although I am still housed in segregated confinement and not in the prison's general population. I write this letter to Humanity due to my concerns of the continued practice of using solitary confinement isolation in this State of New Jersey and nation's prisons and elsewhere, while also providing a practical alternative solution that has yet to be tried and implemented.

Solitary confinement, for those who don't know, is keeping a human being locked in a prison cell without contact with any other human being including family, friends, etc., for almost all of 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, except for a 10 minute shower daily or periodically throughout the week, and perhaps the opportunity for out-of-cell recreation for about an hour and a half 3 days a week; but even when attending recreation one is still solitarily confined in a cage the approximate size of one's prison cell or even smaller.

Solitary confinement is often now labeled by corrections officials with euphemisms such as administrative segregation, closed custody units, close supervision units, etc. This is only done to hide from the public the fact its prisons utilize solitary confinement. But changing the name of solitary confinement with euphemisms while not changing its conditions is a meaningless show of politics.

Besides the fact solitary confinement is by its very nature inhumane, it also has the debilitating affects of gradually deteriorating one's mental and physical health; and for those already with mental illnesses, solitary confinement only exacerbates the problem.

I have experienced and witnessed solitary confinement deteriorate my and others' mental and physical health.

Personally, I have experienced deterioration of my mental and physical health though not to the level of insanity. I have experienced the speed of which I think and process information decrease as a direct result of solitary confinement, as well as have experienced my daily energy be reduced to a constant lethargic state, abnormal constipation and slowed bowel movements, not to mention weakened bones and muscles.

I have witnessed others whom solitary confinement has deteriorated their mental and physical health much worse than my own, to the extent of being reduced to a vegetable state and insanity. I have also witnessed those with mental illnesses mental health problems exacerbate to destructive behavior, self-harm, delusions, schizophrenia and other irrational behavior. Two notable examples I feel needed to be mentioned are of two inmates by the last names K and M, respectively, who are currently housed on New Jersey State Prison's Unit 2B in solitary confinement.

It is known that at one point Mr. K functioned as a normal person and prisoner. After years of being subject to solitary confinement under the false need of MCU (Management Control Unit) status (which he's still on on level 1 status though his handicap and mental illness prevents him from being able to take any programs to move up to the next levels although he's no behavior problem), he has been reduced to a lethargic vegetable state. He no longer remembers his age, he talks to himself throughout the day and early hours of the night, and has a psychosis where he claps and laughs sporadically every 10 minutes or so for no purpose. The medication he takes causes him to enter into a deep coma-like state where banging on the door cannot awake him. He even sleeps while officers attempt to take count. In fact, on one occasion he was in so deep a sleep that when prison staff attempted to move him to another housing cell, they had to call an emergency code and have medical staff place him on a stretcher while asleep just to move him to another cell.

Another sad reality to his situation is that he's handicap and can barely walk to and from the shower. The prison fails to provide him any support/assistance for him to walk to and from the shower. As a consequence of their failure to provide him some sort of assistance to walk to and from the shower, each time he goes to take a shower he trembles and limps while trying to support himself with the wall or gate to get to the shower, which takes him approximately 5-10 minutes to complete though others only seconds. Once while attempting his laborious trek to the shower he fell. After this happened, rather than providing him some support or assistance to walk to the shower, prison officials punished him by denying him showers for approximately a month or more despite his innocent requests to be provided an opportunity to shower. At this point I felt the need to intervene and did so by calling Ombudsman and reported what was taking place. As a result of my phone call a few days later a sergeant came to K's cell to offer him a shower (still with no support or assistance). And on the same day he was offered a shower I was denied a shower in retaliation for reporting what was taking place. But me being denied a shower for one day was worth K's showers being resumed again. If anyone from and with humanity receives this message, please intervene further on Mr. K's behalf and seek his immediate release from solitary confinement and into an appropriate medical unit due to his handicap and mental illness.

Inmate J. M is another effected by the affects of solitary confinement. It's known Mr. M had mental health issues prior to solitary confinement, but isolation has only exacerbated his problems. He talks to himself, or rather screams to himself, constantly curses out a particular person who's nowhere around, drinks his toilet water from the toilet bowl, refuses to be tested for tuberculosis, and often floods his cell out (and consequently others) with toilet water infested with feces and urine. One time he flooded out his cell with excrement water at/around 3:00 a.m. for no provoked reason while I was his neighbor. Fortunately I was awake reading and prevented it from entering my cell. However, the prison and DOC thinks it's best for Mr. M to be locked in solitary confinement rather than provided appropriate treatment in a less oppressive environment. Someone from and with humanity please intervene and seek Mr. M' immediate release from solitary confinement to an appropriate mental health and/or medical unit or facility.

These are just two examples of the extreme debilitating effects of solitary confinement on the human condition, in addition to my own, there are tens or hundreds that can be mentioned.

What then is the solution and practical alternative to solitary confinement? Simple: Even if a prison wants to keep certain inmates segregate from the general prison population, such can be achieved without solitary confinement by housing those inmates in a mini-population where they congregate only amongst themselves and peers on their designated unit. This way they are not in general population, but also are not in solitary confinement neither. This is a midway solution for those of competing interests, which our Legislature has yet attempted to implement but should prepare a bill to do so. Also the DOC may take its own initiative to implement same.

Solitary confinement should only be for the repeat extremely violent and destructive, disruptive inmates and those who request such housing.

An example of this mini-population I mention exists on my current housing unit--Unit 1EE, NJSP--but could and should be expanded and implemented to end all solitary confinement. 1EE is a unit where inmates congregate for recreation, meals and group programs amongst themselves but never congregates amongst general population inmates. There's no reason why other solitary confinement units cannot be converted to function as 1EE. Inmates of similar concern and status can be housed in mini-population units rather than solitary confinement, whether PC, IPC, MCU, Ad-Seg and even Title 30 inmates. There's no reason why inmates on these statuses cannot congregate amongst themselves rather than left to sit in solitary confinement.

If this practical idea of superseding solitary confinement with mini-populations is implemented in this State, New Jersey would be the most progressive state in leading reform to end solitary confinement, which would serve as a beacon and model for all other local, state and federal Department of Corrections and Bureau of Prisons in this nation and even internationally.
Let those with humanity whom this message reaches take a stand and take action to end solitary confinement consistent with the reform ideas stated herein. Sometimes one within the picture can see the picture more clearer than on the outside looking in.

Sincerely,

************

GUEST EDITORIAL: "Solitary Insanity"

The following piece was written by a prisoner currently housed in isolation in New Jersey State Prison, for 365 days.

"Solitary Insanity"

What occurs when a grown man is thrown into a cell that is so small it feels like a treasure chest? Well, to see that, all you have to do is pay a visit to New Jersey State Prison's Administrative Segregation unit. The cells are constraining enough that an average sized man like myself, can reach up and place my hands on the ceiling, I can reach to my sides and place my hands flat on each wall. Then, the toilet is an actual box in the back of the cell. Use your imagination and picture it. 

Now, think about the mindset of someone trapped in this treasure chest. Things have gotten progressively worse each month. It's gotten so bad that the new fad is to (pardon my French) "Shitting someone down"! It's exactly what you think. If someone has issues with another person, whether it be prisoner, officer or civilian, they heat up their own feces, urine and anything else they can imagine, and throw it on that person. Now, how insane must a person be to play in his own feces and urine? On top of that, they'll keep it for weeks in a jar, ready for the opportunity! Even children grow out of playing in feces, so for a grown man, what kind of damage is done to justify this behavior?

It's a culmination of things. Ad seg is horrible, and the conditions are virtually unlivable. The cells are Smurf blue, and when it rains, not only does it leak on the tier, but it leaks in most cells. You can see rust lines drawing their paths down the walls. There is a plethora of mold, dust and I suspect still some asbestos that was painted over. You can't even shower every day to get these ingredients for disease off of you. There's not even hot water in the cells to "bird bath" in the cell.
In the summer, which is quickly approaching, there is a formula for death. Here's why;

On top of what I already mentioned, ventilation is minimal on the tier, and nonexistent inside the cells. Prisoners are not given any pay for ad-seg time, so if they have no support from home, they can't purchase a fan. Most of the fans area so dirty that they barely blow air, and windows only cover a small percentage of cells, especially on the odd numbered tiers where you could be in a cell without any window in the vicinity. Add to that the fact that everything is brick and steel and we all know what happens when those are heated with no ventilation... it becomes a brick and steel oven. You want to see grown men cry like children, visit ad-seg on a day that is over 90degrees. Because in the cell it will be well over 100degrees. They're cooking us to serve on the institutional menu! That's a joke but the conditions aren't! 

Mice and rats are the true tenants of ad-seg. They come out when the lights go out and it's a feeding frenzy! We have to construct "blocks" for our cell doors to keep them out, but they are circus rodents! If there's a will there's a way! They'll get in and you may even wake up with one sitting on your chest, wondering why you are in its house. Waking in the morning entails cleaning out all of the rodent feces and urine and think like an engineer to keep them out. Its an ugly situation.

Now reflect on these facts, and imagine the aspects I haven't mentioned, and think of how it affects a man's mind having to endure this. Analyze how many men in ad-seg take psychological medications, the numbers are staggering. You may walk past a man's cell and see him naked in bed, rocking and taking to himself like a lunatic. And it takes a strong man to endure it...or an equally insane man who has already lost his mind. That makes it a sad state for a person's humanity. Add to that the fact that it takes weeks for men to receive their belongings and months to receive their TV, often more than 90 days! 

Now, ask yourself a question.... why is this unit still open to bring pain and insanity to more men. I still haven't figured that out and I'M IN AD-SEG RIGHT NOW! I get out in January 2018. I just pray that I don't lose my mind as well.

Pray for me.

EVENT June 11: "Solitary" Film Screening and Panel Discussion

Join NJ-CAIC and NeighborCorps Reentry Services for a screening of the HBO Documentary Film "Solitary." Following the film, Mary Buser (author of "Lockdown on Rikers") will deliver a keynote presentation and will be joined by Justice Rountree and Kunal Sharma for a panel discussion. This event will also feature original artwork by former political prisoner Ojore Lutalo. It is open to the public, and has a suggested donation of $10. 

This event will take place on June 11, from 4:00pm to 9:00pm, at Temple Anshe Emeth, located at 222 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. Contact Justina Otero (NeighborCorps Reentry Services) for more information.

TAKE ACTION: Sign Onto Interfaith Statement "In Defense of Human Dignity"

People of faith and moral conscience in New Jersey are coming together to renew their commitment to ending torture in the jails, prisons, and detention centers throughout the state. After a tremendously successful effort supporting a bill to end solitary confinement, which made its all the way to Governor Christie's desk in 2016, NJ-CAIC and its allies are preparing to impact the course of legislative and administrative decisions regarding prisoner housing and treatment.

EVENT April 14-15 "Toward Abolition: Dismantling the Carceral State"

This Friday, April 14th and 15th, Princeton University Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) is hosting its 4th annual conference: Toward Abolition: Dismantling the Carceral State

Every year, the conference brings together over 200 participants from various universities and advocacy groups for a weekend of lectures, panels, and activist workshops. You can register here!

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The conference will feature: 

  • An opening keynote by award-winning scholar and co-founder of Critical Resistance, Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore on “Industrialized Punishment: Charting the Current Crisis in Racial Capitalism”
  • Lectures by Professor Judah Schept, on "Against Punishment: Seeing and Unseeing the Prison in Carceral America” and Alec Karakatsanis, founder and director of Civil Rights Corps, on “Fighting the Normalization of Human Caging” 
  • A performance of “The Bullpen,” a play written and performed by Joe Assadourian, who plays 18 different characters encountered in his experience in the criminal system. More information & RSVP here
  • Panels on taking the CLOSERikers campaign as a case study for abolition, new conceptions of justice, and “Real Women Real Voices,” which will feature the stories of currently and formerly incarcerated women 
  • Workshops facilitated by other activists, and formerly incarcerated/detained individuals on strategies for prison abolition, decarceration and decriminalization 
  • For a full schedule of events and speakers’ bios, click here

Please register here -- we hope to see you there!