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.”