In 2011, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, began fighting solitary confinement.
Now, in 2019, due in part to T’ruah’s efforts, New Jersey is poised to be the first state with a law severely limiting the use of solitary confinement. Late last month, the state legislature passed the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act. The bill now awaits the signature of Governor Phil Murphy, the Democrat who pledged that he would sign such a bill during his 2017 campaign. A similar bill was passed in 2016 and Governor Chris Christie, his Republican predecessor, vetoed it.
Solitary confinement, its opponents argue, is a form of torture, with the potential for long-term psychological trauma.
“We have a strong emphasis in our tradition on teshuva and repentance,” Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of Teaneck said. Rabbi Kahn-Troster is T’ruah’s deputy director. “The idea that people are created in the image of God applies to everyone, no matter what they’ve done.”
Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37) was one of the co-sponsors of the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, which passed the state Senate in a 26-3 vote and the Assembly in a 49-24 vote with five abstentions. “Just because someone is serving a sentence or awaiting trial doesn’t mean our system should degrade their humanity,” Ms. Huttle said. “Punitive measures are necessary for society, but I believe we must maintain our ethics while doing so.”
“Ninety-five percent of people who are incarcerated return to their communities,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster said. “How they are treated has an impact on those communities.”
Rabbi Kahn-Troster said her group’s fight against solitary confinement grew out of its campaign against the use of torture in the war on terror. “We’d been advocating to stop torture overseas,” she said. “Around 2008, we began to ask ourselves why we were not looking to stop torture domestically. In 2009 Atul Gawande wrote an article in the New Yorker called ‘Hellhole’ about solitary confinement as a form of torture. The article was an eye-opener. It really spurred me to begin looking closely into the issue. As part of a national faith committee of anti-torture activists, we began asking what we could do in our own backyard.”
J. Amos Caley is associate pastor at Reformed Church of Highland Park and the lead organizer for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture in New Jersey. T’ruah represents the Jewish community in that campaign.
“The case against solitary confinement is to point out that there is no case for solitary confinement,” Rev. Caley said. “There’s never been a positive outcome for using solitary confinement. It’s ineffective and antithetical to accomplishing correctional goals. It doesn’t make institutions more safe.
“You have incidents between prisoners and staff actually going down in Colorado,” where the department of corrections ended the use of long-term solitary confinement, he continued. “The best practices for humane treatment of prisoners says it should be used as a last resort only. But states use it early and often and just describe it with different names like administrative segregation or disciplinary segregation. All these names for a practice that is repudiated by the American Psychiatric Association and the National Alliance for Mental Illness.”
Rev. Caley said that his coalition had approached the governor’s office about reforming solitary confinement administratively, as Colorado since has done. “We were stonewalled by Governor Christie with the argument that we don’t have solitary confinement in New Jersey. They were just playing the semantic argument that we have restrictive housing, not isolated confinement,” he said.
Instead, under a Democratic governor, “like with the death penalty, New Jersey is going to be the first state to legislatively end the practice of long-term solitary confinement.”
It won’t be missed, Rev. Caley said.
“There are so many other ways to separate prisoners from each other to ensure the safe operation of a prison or jail without resorting to what the U.N. calls torture. We would never say it’s okay for somebody to be shocked with electrodes or denied food for weeks or months at a time. When you look at the evidence, the harm that we’re doing to people in solitary confinement is precisely that: We’re enacting torture on folks. The stories I’ve heard about people being denied access to physical touch, kind words, mental health services, even sanitary supplies, as if because somebody is in jail or prison they’ve lost the right to be treated like a human being.”
“It’s very exciting that New Jersey could serve as a model for other states on ending solidary confinement,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster said. “I’m very proud of the role the Jewish community and the faith community have played in this tremendous moment for human rights.”