Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Nancy Pinkin, Shavonda Sumter and Valerie Vainieri Huttle to restrict the use of solitary confinement in New Jersey’s prisons was signed into law Thursday by Governor Phil Murphy.
“There is significant proof that solitary confinement can have a severe, long-term negative impact on an inmate’s mental health,” said Pinkin (D-Middlesex). “The overuse of isolation in New Jersey’s correctional facilities can cause irreparable psychological damage that affects people while they are in prison and detracts from former inmates’ ability to make positive contributions to their communities thereafter.”
The new law (A-314), known as the “Isolated Confinement Restriction Act,” prohibits the use of isolated confinement in correctional facilities unless there is reasonable cause to believe that it is necessary to reduce the risk of serious harm to the inmate in question or others. A facility is responsible for justifying the use of isolated confinement.
Under the law, inmates are required to receive a personal and comprehensive medical and mental health examination, conducted by a medical professional, before being placed in isolated confinement. An inmate also must be afforded the opportunity to contest the confinement with 72 hours of placement and must be removed from isolation if the facility administrator determines that he or she no longer meets the standard for isolated confinement.
“In addition to this being a moral issue, it’s also a serious health care concern. Solitary confinement very often is associated with anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide,” said Sumter (D-Bergen/Passaic), director of Behavioral Health Services at Hackensack UMC Mountainside Hospital. “This is a method that should be employed as a last resort only in extreme cases and with extreme care. A convict may have committed a crime, but he or she is still a human being and deserves to be treated as such.”
The law requires inmates in isolated confinement to receive daily evaluation by a medical professional. Individuals determined by the clinician to be members of a vulnerable population – including those who have certain illnesses or disabilities or who are 21 or younger, 65 or older or pregnant – must immediately be removed from isolated confinement.
“For children, the elderly, pregnant women and those with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities, the effects of solitary confinement – which can have a damaging effect on anyone – are downright devastating,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), chair of the Assembly Human Services Committee. “As New Jersey works to reform its criminal justice system by prohibiting the arbitrary overuse of solitary confinement, it’s important that we emphasize protecting members of these vulnerable populations.”
In addition to the potential negative impact on inmates, the law’s sponsors also cited the high cost of solitary confinement. Constructing and operating administrative segregation units, including reliance on single cells, additional staff, and enhanced security technology contribute to an increased financial burden on New Jersey’s prison system. These factors combined can create a price tag two or three times more than typical facilities.
The measure was approved in June by the full Assembly by a vote of 49-24, and the full Senate by 27-4.