On December 5, Governor Christie vetoed a bill to put humane limits on the use of isolated confinement in our state correctional facilities. In doing so, the Governor took the opportunity to launch a series of overtly partisan and, frankly, unnecessary attacks on one of the bill’s sponsors. As the Prime Sponsor of this measure in the Assembly, I feel that it is necessary to correct the record over these attacks.
This bill does not end solitary confinement in New Jersey but instead works to ensure that prisoners are not put into this form of confinement for months and years at a time. The goal of our criminal justice system is to rehabilitate the inmates so that once they have served their punishment; they can become productive members of society who are not likely to commit further offenses. Yet, study after study has demonstrated that the use of long term isolated confinement will have a lasting, detrimental effect on this goal. When similar measures were implemented in Colorado, the number of assaults on correctional staff was reduced to their lowest levels in ten years. These changes to our system will ensure that the welfare of both the inmates and correctional staff are better protected.
According to the State Department of Corrections in 2014, there were over 1,500 people in these units. Our bill aimed to get the length of time that these people can be held in isolated confinement down to a matter of weeks, a threshold that would finally put us below the United Nation’s definition of torture, and to ensure that the inmate’s mental health is being thoroughly screened. The mental health aspect is the key part of the rehabilitation process.
Personally, I am disappointed with the Governor’s veto of the bill. If the Governor had disagreed with the policies we were aiming to achieve, he could have reached out to the coalition of people who worked on passing this legislation and provided his perspective for us to consider. A more humane rehabilitative approach to isolated confinement will have to wait for now, but we will continue to work with our coalition of religious institutions, mental health professionals, civil liberty advocates, and concerned citizens in consultation with county wardens and other correctional staff to protect vulnerable populations going forward.
Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin (D-East Brunswick)