NJ Limits Solitary Confinement In Prisons, Hailed As 'Historic' Criminal Justice Step

New Jersey will limit the use of solitary confinement in correctional facilities and effectively ban it outright for certain people, including the young and elderly, pregnant women and members of the LGBTQ community. 

Gov. Phil Murphy signed the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act Thursday, calling it "historic legislation" that continues the transformation of New Jersey's criminal justice system. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey's Executive Director, Amol Sinha, called it "the strongest legislation restricting solitary in the nation." 

“I am proud to stand together with New Jersey’s criminal justice reform advocates and legislators to advance a humane correctional system that allows for the safe operation of facilities and focuses on strengthening reentry initiatives, substance use disorder treatment, and recovery programs," Murphy said in a statement. 

But it will not take effect until next year, and at least parts of it codify existing Department of Corrections' policies on solitary confinement, acting commissioner Marcus O. Hicks said in a statement. Hicks did not specify which policies the department already has in place.

This new law is the latest example of Murphy, a Democrat, reversing the action of his Republican predecessor, Chris Christie, who vetoed a bill limiting the use of solitary confinement in 2016. He said at the time that his administration "ended disciplinary detention as a sanction" and that the corrections department had taken steps to reduce the use of restrictive housing units — more commonly known as solitary confinement — and provide more services for isolated inmates. 

"This is the danger of legions of Democratic legislators blindly following the rhetoric of prime sponsors who typically legislate by bumper-sticker slogans," Christie said at the time.

Although Department of Corrections statistics showed a steady decline in the use of solitary confinement over the years prior to Christie's veto, New Jersey still kept more than 1,000 prisoners, or 5.1 percent of its population, in solitary confinement in 2017, according to a report last year by the Association of State Correctional Administrators and the Liman Center For Public Interest Law at Yale University. The national average is 4.5 percent, the report said. 

The bill Murphy signed prohibits inmates from being put in solitary, or isolated, confinement unless there is "clear and convincing evidence that the inmate or others are at "substantial risk" of harm. The bill defines isolated confinement as putting an inmate in a cell or holding space for about 20 hours or more per day in a state correctional facility or 22 hours or more per day in a county correctional facility, "with severely restricted activity, movement, and social interaction.”

Inmates who are put in solitary confinement may not be held there for more than 20 consecutive days, or for more than 30 days during any 60-day period. And the spaces they are held in must be properly ventilated, lit, temperature-monitored, clean and equipped with functioning sanitary fixtures.

Justin Mazzola, a researcher at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement that the new law brings the United States closer to international standards. Depriving people of natural light, exercise and human contact for prolonged periods of time is "inhumane," he said. 

The new law will also require inmates in isolated confinement to receive a daily medical evaluation by a medical professional. And members of designated vulnerable populations — People under 21 and over 65, those with disabilities, pregnant women, and LGBTQ individuals — may not be placed in solitary confinement unless in "rare, specified circumstance." 

“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 Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D- Bergen, chair of the Assembly Human Services Committee and a primary sponsor of the bill. 

Another bill sponsor, Sen. Sandra Cunningham, said New Jersey's higher-than-average rate of solitary confinement is "not only unnecessary but unjust." Cunningham, D-Hudson, said the legislation was "long overdue." 

As Murphy noted, the law represents another step for the state's shift in criminal justice. Under Christie, New Jersey overhauled the bail system and, in 2015, restricted the use of solitary confinement for juveniles to no more than five consecutive days or 10 in a month. 

“This is another historic and enormous step forward, again, towards criminal justice reform for New Jersey,” Cuqui Rivera, Criminal Justice Reform Chair of the Latino Action Network, said in a statement. “Solitary confinement is a practice that has further broken human beings already struggling with the realities and anguish of incarceration, most, who do return to our communities." 

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