Screams so loud that sleep became impossible. Old food rotting in cells. Little to no human interaction for months or years on end.
Those are some of the experiences described Thursday by former New Jersey inmates who said they were held in solitary confinement, as state lawmakers considered legislation to clamp down on the practice critics say can have long-term, negative repercussions.
“I’m not angry with the Department of Corrections. I’m not here because of anger at being incarcerated,” said Nafeesah Goldsmith, a former inmate who said she spent part of her prison term in solitary confinement.
“I’m here because it is the systems that are in place that allow people who are vulnerable to be further abused,” she said.
Lawmakers are now considering a bill that would limit the duration of solitary confinement in prisons and jails and bar its use on inmates from vulnerable populations.
The proposal is similar to one vetoed by former Republican Gov. Chris Christie in 2016, but prison-reform advocates hope they will have a better chance of getting the legislation signed into law under current Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, who has made criminal justice one of his priorities in office.
“This legislation is more than about solitary confinement,” said Bonnie Kerness, coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee’s Prison Watch Program. “It’s about stopping the torture of human beings and containing the power of officers to impose that torture. It’s about a culture of punishment rather than a culture of human transformation.”
Under the proposal, inmates could not be placed in solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days or more than 20 days in a 60-day period.
The legislation would also prohibit the use of solitary confinement on certain vulnerable inmates, such as those who are younger than 21 or older than 65, pregnant or recently pregnant women, inmates perceived to be gay, and people with mental or developmental disabilities.
When Christie vetoed the legislation three years ago, he claimed it was a “politically motivated press release” seeking to “resolve a problem that does not exist in New Jersey.” Christie claimed that the state did not use solitary confinement on its prisoners.
In a statement, Marcus Hicks, the current acting commissioner of the Department of Corrections, said the state does not use solitary confinement but does put inmates that pose a danger in “restrictive housing,” which he said was different and less isolating than solitary confinement.
Yet former prisoners and civil-liberties advocates who testified before the state Senate Law and Public Safety Committee on Thursday said the semantic differences in terminology amounted to the same conditions behind bars.
“We can call it administrative segregation, protective custody, temporary closed custody, management control unit. The names go on and on. It doesn’t matter what you call it,” said Tess Borden, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
Antonne Henshaw, a former inmate who was recently released after serving a 30-year sentence for homicide, said he spent about seven years in solitary confinement in New Jersey.
Henshaw, who will soon pursue a graduate degree in criminal justice, said the experience of being kept in isolation was dehumanizing.
“The only person who could come there — and he couldn’t even talk to me — was the officer who was serving me my food or the officer who was taking me to the shower,” Henshaw said. “They would just leave you there.”