Rats and mold? Isolated confinement at NJ prisons called ‘horrific’
Whether the state wants to call it solitary confinement or restrictive housing, isolation of inmates is used too often and for too long in New Jersey, and conditions of the living quarters are horrific, social justice advocates say.
They're hoping a measure vetoed by former Gov. Chris Christie, which would restrict the use of isolated confinement in correctional facilities, will have a better shot under the current administration.
Newark resident Justice Rountree, who's spent at least five years total in isolation while serving a 23-year prison sentence, said the accommodations are torturous at best.
"Everything is extremely deteriorated ... rats, mice, mold," he said, noting he receives emails from current inmates who cite that conditions have not improved.
Reports published this month by the Association of State Correctional Administrators and the Arthur Liman Center at Yale Law School rank New Jersey fourth-worst in the country for the number of prisoners who are held in isolation for more than six years.
"Some people give up," Rountree said. "They become one with the mice. They don't even want to come out."
In an emailed comment to New Jersey 101.5, the state Department of Corrections said they do not operate solitary confinement units. Restrictive housing, DOC said, is used for inmates "whose continued presence in general population" would pose a threat to themselves, others or property.
"Offenders in restrictive housing are offered out-of-cell opportunities to interact with other offenders/staff to facilitate pro-social behavior," a spokesperson said.
In the most restrictive housing unit, inmates receive continuous medical and mental health services, the Department said.
As the general prison population has declined, so has the restrictive housing population, DOC said. A committee meets twice per month, DOC said, to review inmate files to identity those who may be ready for less restrictive living quarters.
Under a bill awaiting a hearing in the Assembly Judiciary Committee, a prisoner may not be placed in isolated confinement for more than 15 consecutive days, or for more than 20 days in a 60-day period. In addition, living spaces are to be "properly ventilated, temperature-controlled, lit, and equipped with properly functionary sanitary fixtures."
The bill also sets strict requirements on justifying a prisoner's need for isolated confinement, and medical and mental health checks of the inmates.
In 2016, then-Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the same legislation, saying it was attempting to resolve a problem that doesn't exist.
The Rev. Charles Boyer, pastor of Bethel AME church in Woodbury, said he and other advocates have had promising conversations so far with the Murphy administration regarding the use and quality of isolated confinement.
"I would be extremely surprised, extremely shocked, if the governor did not sign this piece of legislation," Boyer said.