This story is part of the Inside/Out Journalism Project by Type Investigations, which works with incarcerated reporters to produce ambitious, feature-length investigations, with support from the Wayne Barrett Project.
Nathan Gray often found himself pacing his cramped cell, barraged night and day by the sound of other men’s screams. The cell was chilly, with a paper-thin mattress, a small shelf for his belongings and a combined sink and toilet. In this small space, he ate his meals, read Frantz Fanon and Angela Davis and slept when he could. When depression overwhelmed him, he had no one to talk to. He didn’t tell his family about the conditions he was forced to deal with; he didn’t want to worry them.
Gray and his neighbors were permitted to leave their cells for only a handful of reasons each week: to take three showers, for example, or make five 15-minute phone calls, or use an email kiosk to send messages to friends and family on the outside. Sometimes, they were allowed to hang out in one of the holding cells in the unit, known as “cages,” or in outdoor enclosed spaces.
Gray’s description of the living conditions in his unit sounds like those experienced by people held in solitary confinement across the U.S.: severe restrictions on movement, moratoriums on physical contact and nearly 24-hour spans spent in cells about the size of bathrooms.
But Gray, who is known as “Freedom” to friends and family, was not in solitary confinement, according to the New Jersey Department of Corrections. Instead, he lived in one of New Jersey State Prison’s Restorative Housing Units, or R.H.U.s, where people are sent as punishment for breaking prison rules.
Gray, who was released from prison at the end of May, spent more than 370 days in R.H.U.s across two facilities, mostly in New Jersey State Prison.
The Department of Corrections created R.H.U.s in response to the 2019 passage of the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, a law intended to reform the use of solitary confinement in New Jersey correctional facilities. At the time, ICRA was the most progressive solitary confinement reform law in the nation.
The law put strict limits on NJDOC’s use of solitary confinement — which is referred to as “isolated confinement,” and is defined as holding a person “in a cell or similarly confined holding or living space, alone or with other inmates” for 20 or more hours per day “with severely restricted activity, movement, and social interaction.” The limits included capping the practice at 20 consecutive days or 30 days in a 60-day period. The law also restricted the placement of vulnerable groups, like LGBTQ people, in isolated confinement. Isolated confinement can still be used as a punishment in some cases, but people placed there are afforded some protections, like frequent health exams.
R.H.U.s are meant to be a “less restrictive” alternative to isolated confinement. Prisoners held in R.H.U.s should have access to recreation, education and out-of-cell activities that allow for social interaction, per departmental regulations. And most importantly, unlike in isolated confinement, people held in R.H.U.s must be offered the opportunity to spend at least four hours each day outside of their cells. People found guilty of violating prison rules can be placed in these units for up to one year per disciplinary incident.
When Gray heard that New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) had signed ICRA, he was surprised and happy, he said, because he knew “firsthand how damaging solitary confinement can be.” Limiting the amount of time someone can be held in solitary confinement — which was typically called “administrative segregation,” or “ad-seg,” before ICRA — was particularly important to him. “One’s mental health can deteriorate at [a] rapid pace being in solitary confinement,” he said.
But after the department introduced the R.H.U.s about a year later, Gray was dismayed at how little conditions in his new unit differed from what he had endured in solitary confinement. “When I was placed in R.H.U., it was just like being placed in ad-seg,” he said.
Gray is far from the only person incarcerated in New Jersey who says their experience in an R.H.U. varied little, if at all, from time spent in administrative segregation before ICRA was implemented. An 18-month investigation by Type Investigations and HuffPost ― which involved interviews with more than a dozen individuals, including incarcerated people, advocates, and lawyers, and a review of hundreds of pages of public records ― found that conditions in some of these Restorative Housing Units may qualify as isolated confinement under the department’s own definition and defy state regulations, and appear at times to violate the law.
NJDOC did not respond to specific questions about conditions in the R.H.U.s. In an emailed statement, an NJDOC spokesperson said the department “continuously evaluates compliance with ICRA as with all statutory requirements,” and that it “assesses policies and procedures for ensuring incarcerated persons are afforded the required out-of-cell time, opportunities for receiving essential programs and services, and safeguarding staff and incarcerated persons.”
But several incarcerated people who have lived in R.H.U.s told us that they were not regularly offered at least four hours of daily out-of-cell time.
Our sources, who have spent time in R.H.U.s in four prisons, also said people in these units often spent their out-of-cell time in confined spaces they compared to dog kennels, and received little to no mental health care.
Alexander Shalom, a senior supervising attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey who was closely involved with drafting the law, expressed “profound disappointment” when he heard about these allegations.
“We tried to write a bill that was tight enough not to give [NJDOC] room to implement it in a way that didn’t get to our vision of a more just prison system,” Shalom said. “But it seems that they’ve found ways to violate the law or honor it in the breach.”
A ‘Historic Step Forward’
Advocates were elated when Murphy signed the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act. The version of ICRA signed into law “was something that we hadn’t even dreamed of being able to do, and we really had to force the governor to sign it, which led us to believe that this was a huge win,” Rev. J. Amos Caley, an organizer with New Jersey Prison Justice Watch, recalled.
“This was something that was groundbreaking,” Nafeesah Goldsmith, a survivor of solitary confinement and a former chair of NJ-PJW, told Type Investigations and HuffPost. The ACLU-NJ, a member of the NJ-PJW coalition, described the law as a “historic step forward” that “cemented [the state’s] place as a national leader in criminal justice reform.”
Caley, Goldsmith and other activists had worked for years to get a law on the books that would limit the use of solitary confinement. They’d come close to victory before, pushing a version of the law through the state legislature in 2016. But nearly two months after the passage of the original Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, then-Gov. Chris Christie (R) vetoed the bill. “This bill seeks to resolve a problem that does not exist in New Jersey,” he wrote in his veto statement, “because the Department of Corrections … does not utilize isolated confinement.”
It was a stark denial of a reality that very much existed in New Jersey and all across the country. In fact, NJDOC reported to a national survey that the department was holding 1,370 people, nearly 7% of the state’s incarcerated population, in solitary confinement ― meaning they were being held in their cells for 22 hours or more per day for at least 15 days in a row ― in the autumn of 2015. And 108 of those people had been in solitary for more than six years.
Nationwide, the survey reported, more than 67,000 people — nearly 5% of the country’s incarcerated population — were in solitary confinement. More than 2,900 of them had been in solitary for over six years.
Around that time, the United Nations voted to classify solitary confinement as torture when it lasts for more than 15 consecutive days.
Activists did not give up after Christie’s veto. They continued to call attention to the issue, and revived the legislation. Their efforts culminated in a June 2019 state Senate committee hearing where survivors of solitary confinement spoke about their experiences. They described intense isolation in filthy conditions. People endured these conditions for years and continued to feel the effects long after they left prison.
Antonne Henshaw, now a community organizer, spent three decades in prison. He told the state senators about the seven years he spent in solitary. After his release, he said at the hearing, his sister had a bedroom ready for him at her house. But he was so accustomed to life in solitary confinement that he chose to sleep on the closet floor. “I closed the door,” he remembered. “But I did something that was worse. I locked it because I didn’t feel safe.”
Ron Pierce, who was previously incarcerated in East Jersey State Prison, said he still cannot comfortably walk into an unfamiliar room without assessing potential dangers. “I am often asked how I survived years in solitary confinement,” he testified. “My response is always, ‘Who said I survived?’ No one completely survives.”
One state senator said that the survivors’ stories nearly brought him to tears. Their testimony had an impact: The Isolated Confinement Restriction Act passed both houses and was signed into law a month after the hearing.
Two years later, in July 2021, the state appeared to have reduced its solitary population drastically. NJDOC reported in response to another annual survey that it was holding only 49 individuals, or 0.4% percent of all incarcerated people in the state, in solitary confinement.
But these numbers create a misleading impression. After passing the reform law, it appears the state has simply replicated the conditions of solitary confinement in at least some of the R.H.U.s. Advocates told us that in some prisons, they’ve been informed that the main difference between ad-seg and R.H.U.s is a new sign on the door of the same unit. And those R.H.U.s are not classified as solitary by the department, meaning that people held there do not receive the protections, like the 20-day limit on isolated confinement, that ICRA provides.
“The rebranding of ‘ad-seg’ to ‘R.H.U.’ was, as you can imagine, window dressing,” Caley said.
‘A Long Continuum Of Nothing’
Anticipating that prisons might simply continue the practice under a new name, advocates ensured that the law included a clear-cut definition of isolated confinement: holding a person in a cell or a similarly confined space for at least 20 hours a day.
“If the person is in their cell for 20 or more hours a day, it doesn’t matter whatever it’s called,” Shalom, the ACLU-NJ attorney, said in an interview. “It can be called an ice cream parlor. It’s still isolated confinement.”
People in close custody units that NJDOC does not consider isolated confinement, like R.H.U.s, must be offered at least four hours a day outside their cells, or else the prison is violating state regulations.
But several incarcerated people who spent time in R.H.U.s told Type and HuffPost that they were not regularly offered four hours of out-of-cell time each day.
Gray said that people in his unit at New Jersey State Prison spent more than 20 hours in their cells “most days.” He was later transferred to an R.H.U. at South Woods State Prison, ahead of his release from prison in May. The conditions there, he said, were even worse than what he experienced at NJSP.
“You don’t get recreation,” Gray said in a telephone interview from the unit. “You stay in the cell all day, every day.”
Speaking to Type Investigations and HuffPost last fall, Demi Minor said that people in an R.H.U. where she was held at Garden State Youth Correctional Facility were allowed to leave their cells only twice a week for four hours each time.
Mark Caldwell, another NJSP resident, has been held in several R.H.U.s. Caldwell, who goes by “Face,” wrote in an email last year that the R.H.U. where he was confined was offering almost no out-of-cell time. He’d been told that out-of-cell time was every three days, he said, but in the three or four weeks he’d been on the unit, he had gotten out-of-cell time on just a single occasion, for four hours. He was offered the opportunity to leave his cell one other time, he said.
Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist who studies the effects of solitary confinement, said these sources’ accounts were describing solitary. The units sounded “rather harsh” even by the standards of solitary, he added.
NJDOC requires that R.H.U. prisoners must be handcuffed, strip-searched, and escorted by two officers any time they leave their cell, according to a source with knowledge of state prison operating procedures who is not being named because they are not authorized to speak publicly about NJDOC protocol. Due to these stringent protocols, the source believes, some staffers may not want to bother with the hassle of complying with the law. The source also thought that some incarcerated people may turn down out-of-cell time when it’s offered because they don’t want to endure a strip search — especially if they are only being moved to a different cage.
According to several incarcerated people, many prisoners must spend out-of-cell time in another cramped and confined area known as a “rec cage,” sometimes by themselves. But ICRA defines isolated confinement not just as a certain amount of time spent in a cell, but as time spent in a cell “or similarly confined holding or living space.”
“You can’t be in your cell for 20 hours a day and then go into a cage for rec,” said Tess Borden, a former attorney for the ACLU of New Jersey. “It has to be meaningful activity that’s not restrictive.”
One man incarcerated in New Jersey State Prison, who is not being identified because of safety concerns, wrote that one of the R.H.U.s had five enclosures used for indoor recreation. One was a larger space with a television and two tables; the other four, he wrote, were the size of “an area you would put a dog or animal in.” He thought these “dog cages” were meant to be holding cells, but he said they were used for recreation.
“All the guards call our recreational areas ‘cages,’” Gray wrote to us. “They never say, ‘Mr. Gray, do you want to go to the recreation area?’ They’ll say: ‘Gray, do you want cage rec?’”
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for NJDOC said the department “makes every attempt to ensure that incarcerated persons are afforded the opportunity to receive out-of-cell time as required under the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act,” but that “it is not uncommon for many incarcerated persons to refuse the opportunity afforded to them to attend programs and services that would offer additional out-of-cell time.”
“What we’re hearing is that certain prisons are doing more creative things of getting around ICRA and others are completely thumbing their noses at it,” Caley, the organizer, said in an interview.
People held in R.H.U.s are also supposed to have some limited access to outdoor recreation. When R.H.U. prisoners do manage to get outside, some are still isolated in cages, according to Gray. He said the outdoor recreation area at one of his units was split into two sides: a courtyard where multiple prisoners could gather at a time, and a set of enclosed spaces he described as “basically dog kennels.” Each of these cages, he wrote, was about the size of “a standard bathroom” and typically held one person.
This description of outdoor recreation in R.H.U.s is strikingly similar to survivors’ recollections of ad-seg. Lydia Thornton, an organizer who spent nine and a half months in administrative segregation at New Jersey State Prison a decade ago, said the outdoor recreation area was “fully fenced, including the top.” “You go outside and you walk around in a circle in this dog run for two hours,” she said.
Gray found ways to endure the long days confined to his cell. Reading was a lifeline, he says. Through books, he became a student of prison abolition and the literature of the Black Panther Party. Last year, he estimated he had 90 books in his cell. Other prisoners affectionately dubbed him “the librarian.”
He also wrote poetry and essays about incarceration. His last full year of schooling was sixth grade, but he’d come to love the art of writing.
Two attorneys and five advocates said it sounded like NJDOC may be evading the law or at least circumventing its intentions.
“It’s deeply frustrating to see how this has all played out,” Shalom said. “We got legislation passed we never thought we’d get passed and that was a coup, but on the other hand the implementation has been such a disappointment.”
The NJDOC spokesperson said staff must restrict out-of-cell time to keep others safe.
“Unfortunately, the maladaptive behavior of some of the population continues while housed in the R.H.U., including assaultive behavior, which results in staff needing to respond to the area to quiet the disturbance and retain safety and security of the unit,” the spokesperson wrote. “This disruptive behavior and subsequent staff response can potentially impact the out-of-cell time for other incarcerated persons housed in the unit until the situation is resolved.”
New Jersey state Sen. Nellie Pou (D), who co-sponsored ICRA, called the reports of continued isolated confinement “concerning,” but said that her office would need to review the details and make their own assessment to decide if they warranted a response.
“Overall, we want to see our correctional facilities bend more toward rehabilitation, and in that vein see inmates as individuals who must be treated fairly and with basic dignity,” Pou wrote in a statement.
Advocates acknowledge that the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic also complicated the implementation of the reform, which took effect in August 2020. By that May, incarcerated people in New Jersey were dying of the virus at a higher rate than in any other state’s prison system. The pandemic resulted in the widespread use of isolation for medical quarantine, advocates told us, complicating both ICRA compliance and efforts by advocacy groups to monitor it.
But years after the peak of the pandemic, incarcerated people and advocates say the practice of solitary confinement is still common. Part of the challenge, advocates noted, is that prisons have long relied on solitary confinement to maintain order.
“If one were trying to give every benefit of the doubt, you could say running a prison is hard,” Shalom said. “Being told by legislators how to do it makes no sense. They have no expertise and they’ve taken a tool away from the prison without providing another one … But it’s a tool that never should have been given to them in the first place.”
As a result, the R.H.U.s are “consistently full,” making it even more complicated to ensure everyone is getting time out of their cells, according to New Jersey Corrections ombudsperson Terry Schuster, who leads the state’s independent prison oversight body. His office is expected to release a report on out-of-cell time this year.
Schuster noted in a written statement that NJDOC must reduce the population in order to improve conditions.
“The R.H.U. becomes more manageable when there are fewer people on the unit,” he told Type and HuffPost. “It’s easier to follow a schedule of programming and recreation time, or to get people seen by medical and mental health providers, when doing so involves moving fewer people from one place to another.”
That means prisons must find “other tools to manage behavior and create safety,” he said. “The Department must continually ask: What incentives are in place to follow institutional rules? What are the treatment and programming needs underlying problem behavior? And how can staff running the facilities build more trust and goodwill with the incarcerated population?”
The Department of Corrections is adamant that R.H.U.s are not, as incarcerated people and advocates report, ad-seg by a different name. In another response to public comments on the regulations, the department wrote that “the R.H.U.s are not a renaming of administrative segregation.” But R.H.U.s share a key attribute with ad-seg: They give prisons a way to confine incarcerated people in punishing conditions for lengthy periods.
State regulations dictate that prisoners can receive a maximum of 365 days in an R.H.U. as punishment for a disciplinary incident. But nothing prevents prison officials from giving people who are already held in these units more R.H.U. time for subsequent rules violations. That could amount to years spent in conditions similar to those of the old ad-seg units ― the exact situation that ICRA was meant to remedy.
Prison officials also have wide leeway to limit or revoke prisoners’ recreation time for disciplinary reasons, which can lead to even more time confined in a cell. Departmental regulations say that R.H.U. residents should be given “meaningful opportunities” to participate in social activities, educational programs and other recreation, but these opportunities can easily be taken away. Someone can lose recreation access for up to 180 days for a single disciplinary charge.
According to one source incarcerated in New Jersey State Prison, getting a loss of recreation privileges sanction while in an R.H.U. means losing access to outdoor recreation as well as most indoor out-of-cell time.
“You can still sometimes manage to get out to the inside rec cage,” this person wrote. But he leaves for three showers a week, he explained, and “that’s it.” If someone has lost their recreation privileges, they’re “not going anywhere else” outside of their cell.
Loss of recreation privileges appears to be a common punishment for people held in R.H.U.s, according to a Type Investigations and HuffPost analysis of disciplinary data obtained through public records requests. Between the end of November 2021 and mid-February 2022, 75% of R.H.U. sanctions at New Jersey State Prison and South Woods State Prison were accompanied by a loss of recreation privileges. The two prisons doled out 331 loss of recreation privileges sanctions, each at least 15 days long, to people who received concurrent R.H.U. time. More than 150 sanctions lasted for 30 days or more. In three instances at New Jersey State Prison, incarcerated people lost 180 days of recreation privileges.
NJDOC did not address questions about how these sanctions operate.
Between July 2021 and July 2022, Gray was sanctioned to a total of more than a year of R.H.U. time, according to records obtained by Type Investigations and HuffPost. He was often sent to the R.H.U. as punishment for telling prison officials that if they tried to put a roommate in his tiny cell, a common practice known as “double bunking,” he would hurt the other person. Throughout his time in prison, he said, he’d seen violence break out when two men were forced into one cell, and he feared for his safety and mental health.
The extended stints in the R.H.U. took their toll. “It’s just a LONG continuum of nothing,” Gray wrote in an email. “You’re just left here to vegetate if you have no means to support yourself.”
Hundreds of people in New Jersey’s prison system have had similar experiences. People incarcerated in New Jersey State Prison and South Woods State Prison were sent to R.H.U.s at least 444 times between the end of November 2021 and mid-February 2022, for an average of nearly 120 days per sanction, Type Investigations and HuffPost determined from the disciplinary data. Prison rule violations that resulted in these R.H.U. sanctions ranged from assault to not obeying an order from a staff member.
Even if these sanctions are technically within the letter of the law, the frequency of their use suggests a clear defiance of ICRA’s intent.
“The world we hoped for was one where when correctional facilities needed to figure out a way to change the behavior of incarcerated people, they wouldn’t look to torture,” Shalom said. “They’d find other ways, like positive behavioral incentives or the removal of privileges. But not the removal of human interaction. That’s not a privilege. It’s an absolute human necessity.”
‘Not OK To Call That Mental Health Treatment’
Solitary confinement can be devastating for a person’s mental state, and can cause long-term trauma. Yet prisoners say they are given little to no mental health support while in the R.H.U.s.
Face Caldwell wrote in an email last year that he’d been trying to speak to a mental health professional in confidence since he was placed in an R.H.U., but he was only afforded rare and short visits in front of his cell door. Mental health staff are usually accompanied by guards, and prisoners who want to talk to them are forced to share their problems on an open tier for everyone to hear, he explained.
These public mental health checks cause “everybody from prisoners to officers to joke about whatever you’re expressing,” Caldwell said. “They go on to tell the next prisoner and officer and it becomes a lingering joke amongst everybody.”
A source who is familiar with R.H.U. operating procedures said that the mental health checks can be as brief as a practitioner opening up the food port in a cell door, asking if the person is OK, and then closing the port and moving on to the next cell.
Kupers, the psychiatrist, said this is a common but violating practice in prisons. “It’s OK to make rounds on solitary units and look for people in serious trouble,” he said, noting that mental health checks in solitary units should happen almost daily. “But it’s not OK to call that mental health treatment, because that requires a private and confidential setting.”
The situation can quickly turn abusive when prisoners are forced to share their issues in open-unit settings.
“In prison, there’s a huge amount of stigma about having a mental illness,” Kupers explained. “For someone to speak about things where they’re overheard, the prisoner risks huge stigma and possible victimization by other prisoners and also by the officers.”
When prisoners suffering from mental illness are left alone and without proper care, their condition can worsen quickly. “I’ve seen people retreat into madness continuously,” Gray said. “I’ve seen people rub feces on themselves or throw it on other prisoners.”
NJDOC policy requires health care staff to examine prisoners before they’re admitted to close custody units like R.H.U.s. A clinician can recommend that someone sanctioned to R.H.U. time should not be placed there for medical reasons. But according to incarcerated sources, mental health exams before R.H.U. placements are cursory and do not prevent prisoners from being sent to the units.
Caldwell said a psychologist performs a perfunctory interview. “They ask you a carbon copy [set] of questions. ‘Do you feel like hurting yourself,’ ‘Do you feel like hurting anybody else,’ the regular 4 or 5 questions and [then] they take you to lockup,” he wrote. “There is no real examination to determine whether you should be put in R.H.U. or not.”
Kupers, upon hearing Caldwell’s description of his experience in the psych evaluation, called the screening inadequate and superficial.
The NJDOC spokesperson said the department provides “robust mental health services to ensure that incarcerated persons receive necessary care,” and noted that in those exams, “clinicians performing the evaluation can and do make recommendations regarding alternative sanctions if mental health concerns exist.”
Incarcerated sources’ descriptions of the mental health care in R.H.U.s indicate that the Department of Corrections appears to be violating the law. One of the protections ICRA afforded to people placed in isolated confinement is a daily mental and physical health exam. The law says these exams should take place in a “confidential setting outside of the cell whenever possible.”
That means that anyone in an R.H.U. — indeed, in any unit — who is held in isolated confinement, as defined by the law, for even one day must receive these exams, or the prison is breaking the law, said Shalom, the ACLU-NJ attorney.
In its statement, NJDOC did not address Type and HuffPost’s question about whether prisons are complying with this provision.
Solitary confinement can begin to affect brain activity within days, sometimes even in people without preexisting mental illnesses. Though the neurological effects of solitary haven’t been studied in depth, some of the research suggests that the effects of isolation on the brain may be irreversible. One 2019 study of prisoners over a period of nearly two decades found that prisoners who spent any amount of time in solitary were nearly 80% more likely to die by suicide during their first year out of prison than formerly incarcerated people who weren’t held in solitary.
Kupers noted there is a “long list of symptoms” reported by people in solitary, including high anxiety, panic, inexplicable anger, issues with concentration and memory, sleep problems and despair.
For Gray, it was the perpetual noise and lack of sleep in the R.H.U. that wore him down.
“A constant noise that yells in your face, and no matter how hard I try to block it out it has become a part of my psyche,” he wrote while he was still incarcerated. “For many in R.H.U. we must ‘half sleep.’”
‘The Canary In The Coal Mine’
Though it was once considered a landmark victory for solitary reform, advocates now see ICRA as something of a cautionary tale as other states have considered or passed similar bills.
Jessica Sandoval, national director of Unlock the Box, an advocacy campaign that aims to end solitary confinement, calls New Jersey “the canary in the coal mine.” The failure of ICRA to enact meaningful change, she told Type and HuffPost, should serve as an important lesson to other states that have passed or are looking to pass laws to restrict the use of solitary confinement.
In New York, for instance, those lessons are becoming increasingly clear. Nearly two years after ICRA was signed into law, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act, known as HALT. The law went further than ICRA in key ways: It capped solitary at 15 consecutive days, and defined the practice as more than 17 hours of confinement a day. It also created residential rehabilitation units, or RRUs ― “therapeutic and trauma-informed” units analogous to New Jersey’s R.H.U.s.
The strength of the legislation doesn’t seem to have made a difference. New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has been accused of flouting the law on a large scale, including in its treatment of people in RRUs, news organizations and a report by an independent state monitor have found. DOCCS called the allegations “patently false.”
In April, the New York Civil Liberties Union and other organizations filed a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision for violating HALT.
It’s not just New York and New Jersey where this is a problem. In 2018, Massachusetts passed a set of solitary reforms, including a requirement that prisons release people being held in solitary for disciplinary purposes if they’ve been there for more than six months, unless the prison felt they posed an unacceptable risk to safety or order. But last year, prisoners filed a class action lawsuit alleging that the state was violating the law. The complaint mentions one plaintiff who was sanctioned to 10 years in a unit used for disciplinary confinement.
Advocates emphasize that these setbacks do not mean the laws weren’t worth passing. But there are some clear takeaways for future efforts. Shalom noted that any reform bill must be carefully worded to close off potential loopholes.
“We don’t care how hard you’re trying,” he said. “The only question is: has the person been deprived of human contact?”
Even the most ironclad law, however, is not foolproof. Ultimately, “nothing will change until the culture of corrections changes,” Caley said. The source who’s familiar with prison operations said that many correctional officers resent the extra work created by out-of-cell time mandates, and prefer a system where “you could just throw somebody in the hole and be done with them.”
“If we expect that legislation is going to be a sufficient method of curbing institutional abuse, then we’re naive,” Caley said. “The lack of imagination the institutions have is not something we’re going to fix through legislation.”
Still, he said legislation is a valuable part of building a movement. Through the legislative process, coalitions can make sure that “the stakeholders that are responsible for making laws are aware of you, have to account for you, and even are afraid of you,” he said. He also sees introducing legislation as a catalyst for community organizing and education.
For now, NJ-PJW, the prison justice coalition, is rebuilding its campaign against isolated confinement outside of the legislative realm. The group is growing a network of incarcerated and recently released people who are invested in the reform or abolition of solitary confinement. NJ-PJW plans to distribute a survey inside prisons to gather data on the use of isolated confinement.
Advocates say ICRA just proves that passing a law is only the first step toward meaningful change.
“Legislation is only as powerful as the movement that drives it,” Caley said.
Paco Alvarez and Ethan Corey contributed research.
Do you have information about conditions in R.H.U.s in New Jersey? You can reach Chris Blackwell and Nina Zweig at email@example.com or send mail to Type Investigations, 30 Irving Place, 10th Floor, New York NY 10003.
If you or someone you know needs help, call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org for mental health support. Additionally, you can find local mental health and crisis resources at dontcallthepolice.com. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention.