N.J. bill restricting use of solitary confinement heads to Murphy’s desk

New Jersey lawmakers approved a bill Thursday that would dramatically limit which inmates can be kept in solitary confinement and for how long.

Prisoners make clothing for the New Jersey Department of Corrections

New Jersey lawmakers are trying again to limit the amount of time prisoners can be kept in isolated confinement, as well as the circumstances under which they can be sent to solitary (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

New Jersey lawmakers approved a bill Thursday that would dramatically limit which inmates can be kept in solitary confinement and for how long.

It was a win for criminal justice advocates, who said prolonged isolation can have a negative impact on the mental health of inmates.

“Beyond a certain point, isolation actually can become torture,” said Tess Borden, a staff attorney with the New Jersey ACLU. “It has lifelong consequences that follow someone long after they leave jail or prison.”

Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, who has said he opposes the practice, now must decide whether to sign or veto the bill.

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“I’m not a fan of solitary confinement,” Murphy said Wednesday during the monthly “Ask Governor Murphy” public radio show, hosted by WHYY, WBGO, and WNYC.

A spokeswoman from Murphy’s office declined to say whether he would sign the legislation.

Former Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a similar measure in 2016, saying at the time that the state does not use solitary confinement.

But former inmates have said the state Department of Corrections uses a variety of terms to describe living conditions in which inmates are cut off from their fellow prisoners.

Ron Pierce, a former New Jersey inmate convicted of murder, said he spent a total of four years in solitary confinement.

“By our very nature, we’re communal. And when you isolate somebody, you’re removing that part of humanity from them,” Pierce said. “The more you remove it, the harder it is for them to get it back.”

The proposal would bar prisons and jails from keeping inmates in solitary confinement for 20 consecutive days or 30 days total during a 60-day period.

It would also prohibit correctional facilities from keeping certain vulnerable inmates, such as elderly prisoners and pregnant women, in isolated confinement.

During a hearing on the bill earlier this month, former inmates described the anxiety brought on by living alone in a small cell for sometimes 20 hours per day. Some said they encountered rotten food and rats, and were awakened by the shouts of nearby prisoners.

Pierce, the former inmate, suggested it was in the state’s best interest to keep prisoners in group settings as much as possible.

“Do you want somebody who you’ve tortured for years and years and years — whose mental capacity now is torn apart — to come home?” he asked. “Or do you want to build somebody up, so when they come home, they’re ready to rejoin society, they’re ready to be productive?”

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