By David Cruz
The governor’s veto message was acerbic even by his own often contentious standards, calling out the bill’s sponsors and mocking both their intentions and their knowledge of the issue.
“This is not a bill,” it reads. “It is an ill-informed, politically motivated press release by a prime sponsor who proves once again, that he has no idea about law enforcement … This bill seeks to resolve a problem that does not exist in New Jersey, because the Department of Corrections (DOC) in this administration does not utilize isolated confinement, as contemplated by the bill. In fact, it was this administration that ended disciplinary detention as a sanction. But why would the facts ever interfere with the sponsors’ political agenda?”
The main sponsor is Sen. Ray Lesniak, who’s been called a quack and worse by the governor recently.
“I’ve obviously touched a raw nerve with the governor,” he said. “He’s not had a good year. He’s had a very tough year. Everything that he’s wanted has been taken away from him but he should not allow that to affect public policy in the state of New Jersey.”
The bill would’ve limited the use of isolated confinement to 15 consecutive days or not more than 20 days in a two-month period. And only as a last resort. It would also have banned the practice among the mentally ill inmates or those who are pregnant or have other special needs. But Lesniak says the governor is wrong when he says New Jersey doesn’t employ solitary confinement.
“It takes place every single day and it affects hundreds if not over a thousand inmates every year for long periods of time. It embitters prisoners; it makes them angry,” he added. “This is not conducive to them coming out as better persons so that they can be good productive citizens when they come out, so it makes no sense. It’s counter productive.”
The ACLU‘s Alex Shalom says the governor — through the Department of Corrections — is trying to play semantics by using terms like “restrictive housing.” Segregating an inmate for 22 or 23 hours at a time — whether you call it restrictive housing or segregation — is still, in his mind, torture, a practice which he says is widespread in the state.
“We are litigating cases, currently, against the Department of Corrections and county jails, so it’s not a question of degree, not a question of opinion. It is simply a question of fact,” said Shalom. “One thing that we heard when we started the process on this bill is some people in corrections said, ‘Look, we only use this for the worst of the worst,’ and we all have images of people shanking people and raping people and really dangerous folks but, in fact, as we started to look at it, people were getting solitary confinement — long periods of solitary confinement — for lying, for cursing at corrections officers, for filing legal papers on behalf of other inmates for money. These are things that are appropriately punishable in prison, but don’t deserve punishment that amounts to torture.”
The governor says the Democratic sponsors are ignorant as to the practices of the Department of Corrections and that the bill would do more harm than good by undermining a practice that ensures the rights and safety of the incarcerated. Co-sponsor Sen. Sandra Cunningham has made criminal justice reform a priority.
“Unfortunately what happens is that if you are confined it has emotional and mental implications to your well being,” she said. “That’s not something to take lightly and, unfortunately, I do have to say that with the majority of people who are incarcerated are minorities and they’re certainly the people who are going to be greatly affected by it.”
Democrats say they’re debating right now whether to attempt an override or to simply wait for the next governor, who they expect will be more in tune with their view. But that day is still over a year from now.