Solitary confinement is 'excessive' and 'arbitrary' at Essex jail, report finds

By Jessica Mazzola | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on June 23, 2016

The Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark.

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NEWARK — Solitary confinement, a punishment given out to immigrant detainees housed in the Essex County Correctional Facility, is used on an inconsistent and excessive basis. And, the process used to dole out the controversial punishment lacks transparency and due process.

That's according to a new report, "Isolated in Essex: Punishing Immigrants through Solitary Confinement," conducted by students at New York University School of Law, and advocacy groups the American Friends Service Committee and the New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees. 

The report considered 446 incident reports of what the jail calls the "disciplinary segregation" of immigrant inmates between 2013 and 2015.

More than 42 percent of detainees punished with solitary confinement were accused of committing non-violent acts, the report found. About 95 percent of prisoners facing disciplinary action were placed in solitary before there was a hearing on their alleged actions. And, in about 23 percent of those cases, the charges were dismissed or the inmates found not guilty, it said.

Despite the accreditation of the Essex County facility in 2013, the study says 39 percent "of all incidents leading to solitary confinement were related to frustration over jail conditions—whether it be concerns over food, language accessibility, television policies, or desire to speak with federal immigration officials."

The statistics, the authors say, don't add up.

"It shows a system of punishment that perpetuates itself," said Alina Das, an Associate Professor of Clinical Law at NYU who supervised the study.

For example, she said, some detainees who raised concerns about solitary confinement were punished with solitary confinement, "(making punishment an opportunity) to just create more punishment."

But, a spokesperson for the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which manages immigrant detainees, said the agency closely monitors the implementation of "disciplinary segregation" in Essex County to make sure they are in accordance with its "Performance Based National Detention Standards."

"Every disciplinary action is examined separately by a trained correctional professional, based on the incident's specific circumstances," spokesman Alvin Phillips said.

"Disciplinary action is applied within PBNDS and facility guidelines to ensure fairness."

A spokesperson for Essex County deferred questions on the report to ICE.

The report, which was published by the American Friends Service Committee online and in pamphlets Wednesday, will be used, its authors said, to help push for legislative support of a bill aimed at limiting the use of solitary confinement in New Jersey prisons.

The bill (S-51), known as the "Isolated Confinement Restriction Act" is up for consideration by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee Thursday, and on the agenda for a full Senate vote on June 27. As it is written, it would apply to federal and other agencies that lease space in N.J. jails, like ICE.

"The experience at the Essex County jail is significant, layered upon the many reports from throughout the country about the negative consequences of solitary or isolated confinement on inmates' mental health and rehabilitation," said Senator Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), a sponsor of the bill.

"The bottom line is it's cruel, counterproductive and unnecessary."

Serges Demefack, of the American Friends Service Committee, said he planned to speak to the Senate committee about the bill, and distribute copies of the report. His group, he said, advocates for the abolishment of solitary confinement.

The issue is especially pressing, he said, for immigrant detainees, who are being held for civil offenses, but "still face confinement...(and) the same penal system as hardened criminals."

The report is a follow up to one the groups released last year, "23 Hours in the Box, Solitary Confinement in New Jersey Immigration Detention," which looked at similar data in the jails in Bergen and Hudson Counties. The results in Essex, the researchers said, were similar to those in the previous report, but on a larger scale.

The students said they were surprised by what they found.

"I could never have imagined that solitary confinement would be used in such an excessive form," said Andrea Savdie, one of the co-authors.

"Especially for infractions that didn't seem to warrant it."

But, while the report and its authors questioned the discretion used when handing down disciplinary actions to immigrant detainees, Phillips said ICE updated its directives in 2013 to address such concerns.

The new rules, he said, "(enhanced) existing procedures for review and oversight of facility decisions to place detainees in segregation for any extended period of time, and in the case of detainees for whom heightened concerns exist based on health issues or other special vulnerabilities, for any length of time.

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