New Jersey prisons are holding hundreds of people in disciplinary units in conditions tantamount to solitary confinement, a recent report by a state watchdog found.
On an average day, some 750 people are living in Restorative Housing Units, or R.H.U.s, in the state’s prisons. The New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) does not consider R.H.U.s, where prisoners are sent for disciplinary sanctions, to be solitary confinement, which state law defines as at least 20 hours a day in a cell. People in R.H.U.s are supposed to be offered at least four hours a day outside their cells.
But that isn’t happening in the R.H.U.s, according to the Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson’s report. The office’s investigators found that people in these units are often allowed to leave their cells for less than an hour each day.
This practice violates the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, a 2019 law that limited the use of solitary confinement in prisons and jails. Known as ICRA, the law forbids the Department of Corrections from holding people in solitary for more than 20 consecutive days or 30 days in a 60-day period. It also restricted the placement of vulnerable groups, like LGBTQ people and young people, in solitary.
The report stops short of accusing prisons of breaking the law or defying state regulations. But Corrections Ombudsperson Terry Schuster told the New Jersey Monitor that his office’s findings indicate that “the law is being violated.”
Schuster’s report follows a story by Type Investigations and HuffPost that found that some people in R.H.U.s are being held in isolated confinement, despite state regulations that forbid prisons from doing so, and that aspects of the conditions in these units appear to violate ICRA.
Incarcerated people and advocates told Type and HuffPost that prisoners in R.H.U.s were not regularly offered four hours outside of their cells per day; on some days, they said, people may not get to leave their cells at all. When prisoners are let out, they often go to small indoor spaces that guards call “cages.”
One of the reforms lawmakers included in ICRA was a requirement that people in solitary receive a daily health exam. But people in the R.H.U.s we spoke with said they did not get exams, even when they were held in conditions the law defines as solitary confinement.
NJDOC told Type and HuffPost that it “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.”
The ombudsperson’s findings about out-of-cell time align with Type’s reporting.
Investigators conducted unannounced inspections of R.H.U.s in four prisons, surveyed the incarcerated population in those units, and reviewed NJDOC logs documenting out-of-cell time.
Most of the survey respondents reported being provided less than an hour outside their cells per day. Department of Corrections logs showed that, except for the R.H.U. at the women’s prison, staff were not offering R.H.U. residents four hours out of their cells each day. In some R.H.U. tiers, incarcerated people were offered less than an hour out.
NJDOC did not respond to a request for comment.
Issues with ICRA compliance may not be limited to R.H.U.s or prisons. Recent reporting by The Jersey Vindicator also found that the state’s county jails routinely hold young people in isolated confinement in violation of the law.
The ombudsperson’s report says that certain “hurdles” — such as staff turnover, limited space in indoor recreation areas, and disruptions caused by assaults — can make it difficult for prison employees to provide adequate out-of-cell time in R.H.U.s.
Schuster’s office recommended NJDOC make several changes to increase out-of-cell time, including reducing the length of R.H.U. sanctions, placing fewer people in these units, and scheduling back-up recreation periods to make up for time lost due to disruptions.
In July, the department adopted a new policy that rewards “good behavior with increased privileges and an eventual return to the prison’s general population,” the report says. The policy “has the potential” to shorten the amount of time people spend in the R.H.U.s.
“Prolonged isolation, whether in the Restorative Housing Units or elsewhere in correctional facilities, has no restorative purpose, and does not keep our prisons or the public safe,” New Jersey Prison Justice Watch, a coalition that advocated for the passage of ICRA, wrote in a statement in response to the ombudsperson’s report. “It is time for all stakeholders—lawmakers, administrators, and community members—to work together and, without further delay, to establish alternatives to this dehumanizing practice.”