by Abby Gellman (Advocacy Committee)

On Thursday morning, February 12th, a fellow SPEAR member and I attended a meeting in Trenton of the Senate Committee on Law and Public Safety to hear testimony on Bill S2588, the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act.

            One of SPEAR’s central focuses this year has been learning about and helping combat the torturous and pervasive use of solitary confinement, from our annual 7x9 campaign and hosting Sarah Shourd to the launching of the Project Solidarity Correspondence project. I was eager to witness a tangible effort to limit the usage of solitary confinement in New Jersey correctional facilities.

            There was no vote on the bill that morning; it was the first of what will be several committee meetings. As Amos Caley, a supporter of the bill and Interfaith Organizer at The National Religious Campaign Against Torture remarked, it looks like the effort to vote the bill on to the floor of the house will be a “marathon, not a sprint.” Senators Raymond J. Lesniak and Peter J. Barnes sponsored the bill and a primary motivation is whether the use of solitary confinement creates incarcerated people who are more dangerous and more of a threat to public safety. The bill will need to be voted for by three of the five members of the committee to move on. More on the process of a bill turning into a law in the New Jersey state legislature can be found here:

            Committee Room 10, on the 3rd Floor of the State House Annex in Trenton was packed. Before the meeting began, everyone had the opportunity to fill out slips to be read aloud during the hearing formally indicating whether they were in support of or against the bill and to choose to give oral testimony. Representatives from the Princeton chapter of The Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, the Reform Church of Highland Park, The Drug Policy Alliance, Progressive Democrats of America, and Building One New Jersey were among the groups present in support of the bill with representatives from the Department of Corrections against it. Committee chair Linda R. Greenstein called up over half a dozen individuals and groups to give testimony during the almost two hours before the meeting adjourned.

             Alex Shalom from the ACLU was one of the first to give testimony and he recounted three powerful anecdotes that I will relay here. The first was the successful effort to reduce the use of solitary in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm prison where giving incarcerated people in solitary incentives and opportunities to behave well and ultimately reducing the number of people in solitary from 1000 to 300 people not only saved 5 million dollars, but also increased public safety.

The second more disturbing anecdote was in reference to studies showing that the longer time you spend in solitary, the worse the resulting mental health issues are. Shalom told of how in Colorado in 2013, a mentally ill person who spent years confined in solitary was release directly from solitary confinement back to society and promptly murdered the Colorado commissioner of the department of corrections. Shalom said that Colorado then began to rethink “putting people in boxes for long periods and then saying good luck to you” upon release. He reminded the committee that Bill S2588 would reduce the length of time incarcerated people can be held in solitary and limit its use on vulnerable populations.

His final anecdote was about two people held together in Antarctica becoming homicidal to argue that the consequences are equal or even worse for two people held together, double-bunked; therefore explaining that solitary confinement shouldn’t just be considered one person locked in a cell. He gave a definition of solitary as being isolated in a cell for twenty to twenty one hours per day alone or with another person; in essence, solitary is the deprivation of meaningful human contact.

There was a grey area raised during the hearing in terms of the definition for the number of people that constitutes solitary, however. One of the complaints by representatives from the DOC was that the definition for solitary confinement was ambiguous or too generous. One representative of the DOC defined what he thought of as solitary as someone being in a “complete box with no communication other than receiving meals and checking to see if person is still alive. Senator Greenstein asked Alex Shalom what number of people would constitute not being considered solitary and Shalom said about four or five, but he warned against a solution that would see a third person being added to small cells already holding one or two people.

When Greenstein asked Shalom what goes on in prisons in New Jersey, he urged her and the other senators to focus on data during the hearing- not anecdotes- which groups like the ACLU have long been unable to get from the Department of Corrections. He said, “if you’re telling me that mentally ill people are not in solitary, show me that!” (That exact claim, is in fact, what the Commissioner of the NJDOC, Gary Lanigan purported to me after I approached him about the use of solitary when he came to Princeton in December.)

This urging for data rather than anecdotes represented a central tension of the hearing because the advocacy groups for the bill did rely on anecdotes to argue against solitary, rather than data which those on the side of the DOC have yet to share. Fortunately, Greenstein repeatedly voiced the need for more data in the continuing discussion of the bill.

            Greenstein also asked Shalom how long people can be held in solitary and he explained that in the MCU, management control unit, of state prisons, there are quarterly reviews but people have been held there for decades, and that there is supposedly a 365 day limit in the administrative segregation units where people who have committed institutional infractions are punished, but there can be multiple offenses punished at once. Apparently, (and this was the only data the DOC gave during the hearing) the NJDOC has reduced the number of people in the MCU by 17 people to 47 people in the past year.

            Deputy Commissioner Mark Farsi and Special Council Linda Haley testified next, against the bill, and one of their reasons against it was that “it would restrict DOC from responding to ever-changing adjustments” and practices that must be continually monitored and adapted. He also stated that the “New Jersey department of corrections is truly ahead of the curve.” When Greenstein asked him, “What would I see if I looked at someone in MCU?” he answered vaguely, “the same person handled differently” and called the NJDOC “the national standard.” Greenstein mentioned they had not been releasing statistics and whether that would be possible, and he said “upon request, yes.”

            Rob Nixon, director of government affairs for the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, was against the bill because he argued that correctional officers must be protected against violent inmates and they no longer have sick leave or injury programs that allow them paid leave if they are injured or need to take time off. Referring to the category of age, one of the groupings of vulnerable populations that the bill aims to protect, he said that sometimes age doesn’t mean you aren’t capable of doing things justifying confinement. This complaint about the bill was echoed later by a NJDOC representative who called a “free pass because of age, ludicrous” and claimed that a policy of age cut-offs would make those above or below it victims to gang violence. Nixon however, stated that the discussion of the bill comes down to a question of available resources and alternatives and said he was open to a continuing discussion.

            As other parties and individuals testified for and against the bill, including a formerly incarcerated individual who has spent time in solitary confinement, Greenstein continually emphasized that she thought it was a general consensus that solitary for years on end is torture which she thought neither party wanted to continue, and that it is crucial to see statistics, get a lot more information from prisons, and even visit some prisons.

            After the meeting adjourned, fellow SPEAR member Ali and I presented the over one hundred signatures SPEAR gathered in support of S2588 to Greenstein, and we left hopeful that the discussion, at the very least, will continue. I am interested to see what data the committee is able to receive from the DOC as the bill remains under consideration. Please check back here for updates on the bill and for information on SPEAR’s ongoing efforts to support it!