March 16, 2016
By ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney
Luther King, Jr.,
famously hoped that if he were to be
remembered as a drum major, people would say that he
was a drum major for justice.
The drum that sounded at a March 10
New Jersey Senate Committee hearing, of course,
isn’t new: Advocates have been beating it for years.
Activists, medical professionals, family members and
survivors have long-explained that solitary
confinement is a brutal and dangerous practice. They
have beaten the drum to explain that depriving human
beings of meaningful social contact is both cruel
and dangerous. People exposed to solitary
confinement are more likely to suffer from
hallucinations, revenge fantasies,
rage, and irrational anger, and they’re more likely
to turn their inward rage outward through
In New Jersey, according to
Department of Corrections statistics, there were
more than 1,500 inmates in the various segregation
units — administrative segregation, disciplinary
detention, protective custody, etc. In county jails,
where data is harder to come by, hundreds, and maybe
even thousands of people are subjected to extreme
one county jail,
for example, dozens of prisoners — mostly pretrial
some of whom suffer from serious
— are kept alone in their cells for 23 hours a day
five days a week, and 24 hours a day the other two.
Even when they're allowed outside of the cell, they
can't speak to other inmates or go outside; instead
they must pace in a small chain-linked cage.
Despite the continuous drum beat,
many policymakers in New Jersey have not heard the
cadence. As recently as February of last year, a
policy proposal from Senator Raymond Lesniak seemed
to fall on
The proposal would limit isolated confinement in New
Jersey prisons and jails, setting time limits,
banning isolation for vulnerable populations,
requiring facilities to use isolated confinement
only as a last resort, and mandating daily safety
checks for prisoners.
But, there have been new and powerful
drummers in the last year that have made our cause
too loud to ignore. In June, United States Supreme
Court Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested that
prolonged periods of near-total isolation, as are
often the norm in American prisons and jails,
may violate the Constitution’s
prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Then, President Barack Obama added to
the building percussion: he wrote of solitary
confinement, “It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an
affront to our common humanity.” He turned those
concerns into policy, and in January, he
dramatically restricted the use of solitary
confinement in federal corrections facilities.
The question, though, was whether
legislators in the Garden State would hear the
growing beat of the drum. At a hearing before the
Senate Law and Public Safety Committee last week the
steady rhythm grew louder.
National Religious Campaign Against
helped bring together New Jersey faith leaders to
bring the issue to a crescendo.
Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale
of the Reformed Church of Highland Park told the
Committee a moving story about a parishioner’s
daughter who was incarcerated for a non-violent drug
offense. She recently suffered a psychotic break
while in solitary confinement, and apparently no
longer knew who she was.
of Temple Shalom of Succasunna recounted that when
he served as the Jewish Chaplain at the Marion
Federal Correctional Facility in Illinois, prisoners
in solitary confinement – even those whom he wasn’t
certain were Jewish – requested his companionship
every month because they so thirsted for human
Rev. Charles F. Boyer
of the Bethel AME Church in Woodbury, NJ, spoke
powerfully about a young man who received half a
year in solitary confinement for possession of a USB
cable; he had received a tablet in the prison mail
just a day earlier and the cord was part of the
package he was given by correctional officers.
Rev. Boyer concluded by asking – on
behalf of people of faith and moral conscience in
New Jersey – the committee to release the bill. And
the Committee finally heard the persistent rumble of
the drumline, each percussionist both a drum major
for justice, marching in front, and just another
member of a mighty ensemble.
The bill, S51, was released from
committee by a vote of 3 in favor, 1 against, and 1
abstention. It will now proceed to the Senate Budget
Committee. Work remains to be done, but it is clear
that New Jersey can no longer dismiss the thunderous
roar of the drumbeat for justice.