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.


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.


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.

solitary cell.jpg

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.



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!


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!