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Middlesex County, New Jersey Settles Solitary Confinement Suit

by Dale Chappell

In September 2018, Middlesex County, New Jersey agreed to settle a civil rights lawsuit and give prisoners held in a secure housing unit more freedom. 

“It’s no longer possible to lock someone in solitary confinement and throw away the key,” Deputy Public Defender Fletcher Duddy said in response to the settlement agreement. The ACLU of New Jersey joined the Office of the Public Defender in announcing that Middlesex County had agreed to limit the number of days a prisoner can remain in solitary, and will allow more out-of-cell time and interaction with other prisoners. 

The eight named plaintiffs who filed the class-action suit claimed that C-Pod, the jail’s solitary confinement unit at the North Brunswick facility, resulted in “forced idleness,” including at least 23 hours on lockdown five days a week and 24-hour lockdown on weekends. During the single hour out of their cells, prisoners showered or sat in a small caged-in area for their “recreation” time. They were kept in those conditions for over a year; some were pretrial detainees who had not been convicted.

The lawsuit described the solitary cells as “smaller than a parking space” with the windows painted over, thus “preventing the inmates from looking outside.” There also were no formal programs available and the jail’s library provided “antiquated” books.

Pursuant to the settlement, prisoners held in C-Pod will be allowed at least 28 hours per week outside their cells. They will receive programming, access to law library services and protections for “less restrictive security measures,” according to the ACLU. Solitary imposed for disciplinary purposes cannot exceed 15 days for one offense or 30 days for multiple offenses. Further, the jail agreed to adopt a “more robust mental health screening process” for prisoners placed in solitary. 

The county also agreed to pay attorney fees and costs in the amount of $11,123. See: C-Pod Inmates of Middlesex County v. Middlesex County, U.S.D.C. (D. NJ), Case No. 3:15-cv-07920-PGS-TJB.

In a study, the Vera Institute of Justice’s Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative found that solitary confinement is “toxic to brain functioning and causes symptoms characteristic of stupor and delirium.” In early 2018, the county agreed to pay $100,000 to settle another lawsuit based on claims that solitary confinement had worsened a prisoner’s mental health condition.

The county worked with the Vera Institute to change its segregation policies in response to that case, striving to become a “model” for other jails and prisons. See: P.D. v. Middlesex County, Superior Court of New Jersey, Docket No. MID-L-3811-14.

“Middlesex County deserves credit for recognizing the need to curb cruel practices of solitary confinement and for taking action,” ACLU of New Jersey Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero said in a statement. Problems persist in other jails across the state, however, which requires a legislative fix, the statement added.

In 2016, legislation was proposed to “drastically limit” solitary confinement in New Jersey, but the bill was vetoed by then-Governor Chris Christie. A new version (A.314) has been introduced to reform segregation practices in the state. 

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Additional sources: nj.com, aclu-nj.org

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