SOCIAL ISSUES

Report re-energizes push to end solitary confinement in state

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

Lydia Thornton was in solitary confinement for over 9 months at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton in 2013 for breaking parole rules. She says that affects how she lives now.

“I’m jumpier than I ever use to be. I’m less trusting than I ever was. I like my quiet space. I can’t be in big crowds,” she said.

Solitary confinement means 22 hours a day in a small cell and 6 hours of outdoor recreation a week.

“What that means in real life is you strip down before you go out. Then you put your clothes back on,” she said. “Then you go out in what I can only define as a dog run because it’s got fence on both sides and on top so that nobody can climb out and escape. … And you can walk in circles in it, talk to the person in the cage next to for a couple hours. If it’s too hot out there you can’t come in until it’s over. And then when you come back in you’re stripped search again.”

It also means no physical contact with other humans.

“There are multiple studies that have been done over decades of what the lack of human touch does to babies. It does the same to adults,” said Thornton.

Critics insist isolated confinement defies the rehabilitative intent of prison, especially for the young, mentally ill and other vulnerable inmates.

For years, New Jersey has insisted it does not practice solitary confinement. But, a new Yale Law School state correctional administrators study shows it does. The report refers to it as restrictive housing, defined as 22 hours a day, no human contact and limited outdoor time. According to New Jersey Department of Corrections data given to researchers, New Jersey inmates are isolated for longer periods than other inmates in most other states.

The study also found that in New Jersey, more than two-thirds of the women and three-fourths of the men in isolated confinement are black or Latino, and the percentage of males in restrictive housing tops the national average.

“And we have to thank and appreciate the prison systems around the country, their directors are saying we want to know this data and they’re increasingly saying we’re hoping that these numbers are coming down,” said Judith Resnik, the Arthur Liman professor of law at Yale Law School and founding director of the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law.

“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.

Social justice advocates say the study is the ammunition lawmakers and the governor need to do what the former governor rejected — ending isolated confinement by law.

The sentiment after meeting with the Department of Correction’s acting commissioner?

“Really it seemed to us that there was very little light in between where we’re trying to go and where the Department of Corrections under the new leadership is trying to go,” Boyer said.

The Department of Corrections declined an on-camera interview and has yet to reply with several written questions as requested.