New Jersey survivors of solitary to share stories of life in isolation

Cyril Josh Barker | 1/17/2019, 3:22 p.m.
Six survivors of solitary confinement in New Jersey are publicly sharing their stories later this month about their life-altering experience ...
Empty jail cell, prison John McAfee/CNN

Six survivors of solitary confinement in New Jersey are publicly sharing their stories later this month about their life-altering experience in solitary confinement.

The event is set take place Jan. 23 at 6 p.m. at Green Space in Manhattan and will also feature a virtual tour of solitary confinement, simulating both the physical environment and the psychological disorientation of prolonged isolation.

“We must begin to understand what solitary confinement does to humans,” said Lydia Thornton, who spent nine-and-a-half months in solitary confinement in New Jersey. “It changes our brain chemistry—the studies demonstrate it, and our experiences confirm it. The vast majority of us will come back to our communities. We need to come back better, not more damaged. We call ourselves survivors, because we are. We speak for those who cannot.”

Members of the New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement will discuss criminal justice reform. NJ-CAIC’s membership includes the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, the American Friends Service Committee and others.

“Solitary confinement is torture. And it is a form of torture that is disproportionately used against Black and Brown people,” said the Rev. Charles Boyer, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Woodbury and founder of Salvation and Social Justice. “In New Jersey, over two-thirds of all isolated women and over three-fourths of all isolated men are Black or Hispanic.”

Legislation has been introduced in the state Assembly and Senate, A314/S3261, the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, that would greatly limit the use of solitary confinement in New Jersey prisons. The bill would ban isolation for more that 15 consecutive days and allow isolation for no more than 20 days per 60-day period, with exceptions for genuine emergencies.

The bill would also prohibit any member of vulnerable populations, as classified by clinical staff, from being placed in isolation. Vulnerable populations include people aged 21 and younger, people aged 65 and older, people with developmental disabilities, people with a disability based on mental illness, people with serious medical conditions and people who are pregnant.