Mark Hopkins was just 15 when he was sentenced to prison in New Jersey and placed in solitary confinement. He was kept in a space the size of a bathroom where he could hear other prisoners screaming. Prison guards jammed newspapers into industrial fans to try to drown out the din.
The only way he could hope to sleep was to stuff tissues in his ears and use a sweater to wrap a pillow around his head, Hopkins told members of the New Jersey Senate’s Law and Public Safety Committee in June of 2019.
“Solitary confinement is systematically made to be uncomfortable, tense, and, quite frankly, an unhinging type of environment. It’s people yelling, trying to have conversations and having mental breakdowns, and a lot of chaos,” Hopkins said, noting that he suffered long-term psychological damage from the experience
Another former prisoner held in solitary confinement, Ron Pierce, told the committee how the man in the cell next to him smeared feces all over the wall of his cell. After that, guards kept the light for both cells on 24 hours a day, making it almost impossible for Pierce to sleep at night.
“I was sleep-deprived, edgy and frustrated,” Pierce told the committee. “I wondered how I had gotten to this point in life where I could be housed in a cage that’s unfit for animals. I’m often asked how I survived those years in solitary confinement, and my response is always ‘Who said I survived?’ No one completely survives.”
Nafeesah Goldsmith told senators she can’t forget what she experienced in solitary confinement.
“Women were screaming saying ‘I’m going to kill myself’ and I knew two people who were successful,” Goldsmith said. She also recounted how difficult it was to get sanitary napkins while in solitary confinement. Some women used socks.
The three former prisoners were just some who testified at hearings held by the New Jersey Assembly and Senate, calling for restrictions on solitary confinement in the state’s prisons and jails. These hearings led to the passage of a law in 2019 restricting the practice.
But more than three years after the law was implemented, it hasn’t had the outcomes prisoner rights advocates had hoped for.
The majority of counties are failing to report on their use of isolated confinement in jails, and others appear to be outright ignoring the provisions of the law, while young people continue to regularly be held in solitary confinement.
Prisons also aren’t following the new law. In a joint investigation published this month, HuffPost and Type Investigations found that New Jersey prisons are regularly holding people in so-called Restorative Housing Units (RHUs), which in many cases match the state’s definition of solitary confinement.
History of the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act
Solitary confinement, or isolated confinement, is a form of imprisonment in which a person is kept alone in a cell with little or no contact with other people, and has commonly been used as a form of jailhouse punishment. Study after study has shown the practice of isolating prisoners for extended periods causes psychological trauma and can trigger psychiatric disorders.
In 2012, community and faith-based organizations came together to form the New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement to curtail the inhumane practice. A few years later, this group succeeded in getting solitary confinement restrictions included in an early version of the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act that passed in both houses of the New Jersey Legislature.
But in December 2016, then-Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the bill. In a public statement, he called the prospective law “partisan and juvenile,” accused its sponsors of legislating “by bumper sticker slogans” and insisted his administration had already eliminated isolated confinement, instead adopting practices like “administrative segregation” to maintain order in prisons and jails. Administrative segregation, or “ad seg,” is when a prisoner is housed separately from the main prison population. In most prisons, ad seg is solitary confinement by another name.
A 2016 review of public records by the Princeton University student group Students for Prison Education and Reform showed that even the Department of Corrections’s internal memos acknowledged “administrative segregation” to be nearly indistinguishable from isolated confinement.
When Christie’s term ended the next year, lawmakers quickly passed an updated version of the 2016 legislation, which Murphy promptly signed into law. Among other reforms, the law limited isolated confinement to twenty days, established high barriers for its use against members of vulnerable communities, and required all correctional facilities, including both state prisons and county jails, to submit quarterly reports to the New Jersey Department of Corrections documenting their use of solitary.
In 2019, the advocates for reform were finally victorious when the New Jersey Senate and Assembly passed the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act. Under the law, isolated confinement is not supposed to be used against vulnerable populations or for extended time periods. When Gov. Phil Murphy signed the act into law, he called the legislation “historic.” And he wasn’t the only one.
Elected officials and grassroots advocates also heralded the new law as a watershed achievement that would curb solitary confinement in the Garden State. The director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, Amol Sinha, went as far as to call the law “the strongest legislation restricting isolated confinement in the nation.”
But in reality, not much has changed in the state’s jails. Over the past several months, The Jersey Vindicator reviewed all quarterly reports submitted by county jail facilities since the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act took effect in 2020. Our review uncovered some troubling patterns.
For one thing, a majority of New Jersey counties have apparently failed to report adequate information to the state Department of Corrections, as required by the law. Four counties have so far failed to self-report any information at all.
What’s worse, the reports that are available reveal that nearly every jail in the state routinely puts young prisoners in isolated confinement, in potential violation of the law’s provisions meant to protect members of vulnerable populations.
The Vindicator’s review also uncovered significant racial disparities, with Black prisoners disproportionately committed to isolated confinement in numerous counties throughout the Garden State.
Jails not compliant with self-reporting requirements
The solitary confinement law requires New Jersey jails and prisons to keep detailed information about their use of isolated confinement and to submit quarterly reports to the state Department of Corrections. The act also requires that the department post these reports online, where the public can review them.
The law is specific about what information jail officials need to report. In addition to documenting the total number of isolated prisoners per quarter, officials are required to report their age, sex, gender identity, race, and ethnicity, as well as any incidence of mental illness, suicide, or self-harm that takes place in solitary. Jail officials are also required to report a headcount of isolated prisoners on the final day of each quarter and to break down their total tally by confinement type.
The New Jersey Department of Corrections began requiring the submission of quarterly reports three years ago, but only Bergen and Hudson counties have a full collection of twelve reports present on the Department of Corrections website.
When The Jersey Vindicator began making inquiries about this matter several weeks ago, the Department of Corrections had published no reports more recent than the first quarter of 2023. Hudson County provided The Jersey Vindicator with a report for the second quarter of 2023, indicating that it had been submitted to the state in mid-July. After our inquiries, the Department of Corrections website has since been updated with the most recent reports from Bergen, Hudson, Mercer, Monmouth, Ocean, and Sussex counties.
But despite these recent changes, there remain numerous examples of haphazard and incomplete filings dating back to mid-2020 on the Department of Corrections website.
Essex County, which runs the largest jail in the state, appears to have filed only two reports since the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act took effect. Salem County and Gloucester County – misspelled as “Glouster” on the Department of Corrections website – appear to have filed reports through the beginning of 2021, then abruptly stopped. Atlantic County appears to have filed reports only during 2022.
Reports for Somerset County and Warren County do not appear in the state’s repository but are available on the two counties’ own websites. Since 2020, everyone arrested in Hunterdon County and sent to jail is housed at the Warren County Correctional Center. Hunterdon County does not maintain a jail.
Before we made inquiries about reports, the Department of Corrections website linked to seven reports from Monmouth County, but only two of those links navigated to a complete report; while the other five navigated to error pages. Those issues were fixed after our inquiries with officials.
Four counties — Cumberland, Middlesex, Passaic, and Union — apparently haven’t submitted any reports whatsoever. The Jersey Vindicator made repeated attempts to contact jail officials in each of these four counties by phone and email.
Only William Maer, a spokesman for the Passaic County Sheriff’s Office, responded to our inquiries. “Actually PCJ [Passaic County Jail] is in compliance [with the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act],” he wrote in an email, saying that since March 2023 no prisoners have been housed for longer than 24 hours in Passaic County, due to service agreements with Bergen and Hudson counties.
When The Jersey Vindicator pointed out that the law took effect in mid-2020, and that eleven mandatory reporting periods had elapsed prior to March 2023, Maer stopped replying to our emails.
Middlesex County Sheriff Mildred S. Scott did not reply to a list of written questions and could not be reached by telephone. Cumberland County Department of Corrections Director Charles Albino failed to respond to multiple emails and did not return our calls. Neither Union County Sheriff Peter Corvelli nor Captain Robert Cesaro, officer-in-charge of the Union County Division of Corrections, responded to requests for comment left with their office staff.
It is unclear whether the state Department of Corrections has granted any jail an exemption that would excuse them from self-reporting. It is also unclear whether the department has made any attempt to obtain the reports absent from the online repository.
The Jersey Vindicator submitted multiple requests for comment to the New Jersey Department of Corrections and sent several emails directly to the Department of Corrections’ Office of County Services. Amy Z. Quinn, director of public information for the department, confirmed receipt of our queries in response to emails and a phone call and said that she was “looking into” the matter, but then never responded to a list of written questions before publication.
But absent reports are far from the only issue. The reports that do exist in the New Jersey Department of Corrections online data portal are inconsistent in format and often omit key information, suggesting there is substantial confusion among jail officials about what information is required under the law and how to accurately report it.
Despite these problems, the reports do reveal at least one important fact — numerous jails continue to regularly commit people 21 and younger to solitary confinement, in violation of the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act.
Isolated confinement of young people remains commonplace
The law clearly states that “isolated confinement should not be used against vulnerable populations,” and explicitly prohibits the use of isolated confinement against such populations except in special cases and for shortened periods of time. The law goes on to define vulnerable populations to include prisoners 21 and younger, among other categories.
But nearly all counties that reported confinement practices routinely put people 21 and younger in isolated confinement. Only about 7 percent of the statewide county jail population was between the ages of 18 and 22, according to a data snapshot published in January by the Department of Corrections. But people 21 and younger represent 11 percent of all isolated confinement commitments reported by county jails since the law took effect in 2020.
And in a number of jurisdictions, young people are committed to isolated confinement even more frequently than that statewide average would suggest.
In the Bergen County Jail, 16 percent of prisoners put in solitary confinement between August 2020 and April 2023 were 21 or under — a total of 226 people. During the first quarter of 2023, the last time period for which data is available, 31 people who were 21 or younger were held in isolated confinement in Bergen County.
Atlantic County reported holding 354 prisoners who were 21 or younger in isolated confinement during calendar year 2022 — about 14 percent of their total.
During the second half of 2022, 57 percent of all prisoners held in isolated confinement in the Monmouth County Correctional Institution were 21 or younger.
In Essex County, 108 people 21 and younger were held in isolated confinement during the final two quarters of 2022 — about 12 percent of that county’s total. In March of this year, a civilian task force released an independent report raising concerns about the isolated confinement of vulnerable populations, including young people, in the Essex County Correctional Center.
Hudson County, by contrast, appears to be a rare example of a jurisdiction that is following the law’s provisions. While people 21 and younger represented about 29 percent of Hudson County’s isolated prisoners in 2020, the county’s use of isolated confinement fell precipitously starting in 2021, according to self-reported data. The county reported no more than four people in isolated confinement — and no one 21 and under — during every quarter of 2022 and the first quarter of 2023.
The Jersey Vindicator made repeated attempts to contact jail officials in Atlantic, Bergen, Essex, and Monmouth counties to ask about their continued use of isolated confinement against people 21 years old and younger.
“The Atlantic County Justice Facility is in full compliance with the law and meets all Department of Corrections standards,” wrote Linda Gilmore, a spokesperson for the Atlantic County executive, in an email. She did not respond to questions about the isolated confinement of prisoners 21 and younger, nor did she respond to questions about the county’s failure to supply mandatory quarterly reports in 2020 and 2021.
Cynthia Scott of the Monmouth County Sheriff’s Office wrote in an email that Monmouth County Correctional Institution does not commit people 21 and younger to isolated confinement. Instead, she wrote that such people are admitted only to “emergency confinement.”
Emergency confinement is listed in the law among several “limited circumstances” in which isolated confinement can be used against people 21 years old and younger. The law defines “emergency confinement” as the “segregation of an inmate […] when there is reasonable cause to believe that this segregation is necessary for reducing a substantial risk of imminent serious harm to the inmate or others, as evidenced by recent conduct.” It also states that prisoners may only be committed to emergency commitment for periods of 24 hours or less, and must undergo medical and mental health evaluations before, during, and after their commitment.
“In the reporting format provided by the state, there is no section to identify those 21 and younger inmates who are placed in Emergency Confinement,” Scott wrote. But the Monmouth County Correctional Institution reported a total of 31 isolated prisoners 21 or younger during the final two quarters of 2022, while only reporting 12 total placements in emergency confinement. Scott did not respond to questions about this discrepancy.
Keisha McLean, supervisor of public information and media relations for the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office, failed to respond to multiple emails. The Jersey Vindicator could not reach any official at Essex County Correctional Facility for comment. Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, Jr. did not respond to emails.
Racial disparities in isolated confinement
As was much discussed at the time of its passage, the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act was motivated in part by renewed public conversation about racial disparities in rates of arrest and incarceration in the Garden State.
A 2021 study by the Sentencing Project found that New Jersey has the worst racial disparities in arrest and incarceration in the United States, with a Black adult being 12 times more likely than a white adult to be incarcerated in the Garden State.
But based on the limited data self-reported by New Jersey county jails, it seems that the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act has done little to rectify racial disparities in isolated confinement.
The available data show that Black prisoners represented about 41 percent of prisoners put in isolated confinement since mid-2020. This is despite the fact that Black people represent less than 13 percent of the state’s total population, according to the 2022 American Community Survey, and about 35 percent of the statewide county jail population, according to the Department of Corrections’ January data snapshot.
But this is just a rough estimate, since most jails failed to consistently report adequate information about the racial breakdown of isolated prisoners. As a result, we’ve had to calculate this percentage based on inconsistent and fluctuating tallies that include a different selection of jails nearly every quarter. Because of these inconsistencies, it is possible — and indeed likely — that racial discrepancies in isolated confinement are even more pronounced than our calculations suggest.
In Bergen County, 33 percent of all prisoners committed to isolated confinement between August 2020 and April 2023 were Black, despite Black people representing less than 6 percent of the county’s total population. (Black prisoners also comprise about 33 percent of the total jail population in Bergen County, according to data from the Vera Institute of Justice, a non-partisan think tank.)
In Ocean County, where Black people comprise only about 3 percent of the population, 32 percent of those committed to isolated confinement during the same time period were Black. In Ocean County, Black prisoners comprise about 35 percent of the total jail population, according to the Vera Institute.
In Atlantic County, which is just over 13 percent Black, Black prisoners accounted for 61 percent of isolated confinement commitments in 2022. Black prisoners comprise about 62 percent of the total jail population in Atlantic County, according to the Vera Institute.
In Essex County, which only self-reported numbers for the final two quarters of 2022, a startling 74 percent of all people sent to isolated confinement were Black, despite Black residents representing around 35 percent of the county’s total population. Black prisoners comprise about 71 percent of the total prison population in Essex County, according to the Vera Institute.
The Isolated Confinement Restriction Act may have been heralded as historic when the ink was still fresh, but now, more than three years later, poor reporting practices have made it impossible to assess what effect the law has actually had. The law’s most important provisions remain unevenly implemented by county jail administrators across the Garden State and young prisoners are still regularly being placed in isolated confinement.
Editor’s note: As noted in the story, after the reporter made my initial inquiries to state and county officials about the solitary confinement data, the Department of Corrections began to make changes to their online data portal. This was clearly in response to the issues the reporter raised.
Krystal Knapp and Payton Guion contributed to this story.