Pou, Cunningham Bill Restricting Isolated Confinement Passes Senate

Trenton – Legislation sponsored by Senator Nellie Pou and Senator Sandra B. Cunningham, which would restrict the use of isolated confinement in correctional facilities, passed the Senate today.

“The excess use of isolated confinement often fails to produce positive results. In fact, it has been known to lead to cruel and inhumane treatments with severe consequences for the physical and mental health of prisoners,” said Senator Pou (D- Bergen/Passaic). “We want to ensure a justice system that treats everyone with respect, including those who are incarcerated. This bill will help reform the culture of correction facilities by restricting the use of isolated confinement and ensuring that those in confinement get the care and humane treatment they require and deserve.”

The bill, S-3261, would restrict isolated confinement from being used for non-disciplinary reasons or without first providing a personal and comprehensive medical and mental examination.

This bill strongly resembles Senate Bill S-51 which passed the Senate in 2017 but was subsequently vetoed by then Governor Christie.

“Our state holds over 5% of its detainees in solitary confinement, despite well documented evidence of the lasting mental health damage it causes,” said Senator Cunningham (D-Hudson). “Using it with the regularity that we do is not only unnecessary but unjust. This legislation is long overdue. Unless a person is of clear and present danger to those around them, they should not be placed in isolated confinement.”

The bill also prohibits members of vulnerable groups from being placed in isolated confinement, which include: those who are 21 years old or younger or who are 65 years old or older, have a disability based on mental illness, have a developmental disability, have a serious medical condition, are pregnant or recently pregnant, have a significant auditory or visual impairment, or are perceived to be LGBT+, among others. In order to determine if an individual is a part of vulnerable group, the bill would require a clinician to evaluate each inmate.

Exceptions that would permit the use of isolated confinement include: if the inmate could become a threat to themselves or others, if an inmate were placed due to emergency confinement, medical isolation, protective custody, or if there were a facility-wide lock down and to ensure the safety of the inmates.

Additionally under the bill, inmates would have the right to contest isolated confinement within 72 hours of the placement. And inmates would not be able to be placed in isolated confinement for more than 20 consecutive days or more than 30 days within a 60 day period.

Inmates would also have the right to an initial hearing within the first 72 hours. The hearing would be conducted in accordance with the following guidelines: the inmate would have the right to attend the hearing, they would have the right to be represented at the hearing and they would be provided with a written statement regarding the reasoning of the decision made at the conclusion of the hearing. The hearing itself would also be conducted by an independent hearing officer.

The use of isolated confinement has been linked to a number of adverse effects on inmates. Several studies have found that individuals subjected to isolated confinement have exhibited behaviors similar to post traumatic stress disorder, hallucinations, perceptual distortions, rage and irrational anger. These individuals are also at a higher risk of self-mutilation and suicide.

The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 26-3.