In our 2017 Pro Bono Report, we profiled a civil rights lawsuit we pursued on behalf of “Tobias,” challenging his more than 13 years in solitary confinement as a result of his placement in involuntary protective custody (IPC). During that litigation, it became clear that New Jersey was keeping dozens of inmates in prolonged IPC, without cause or a meaningful opportunity to challenge their placement. We had witnessed firsthand how such extreme and indefinite solitary confinement affected Tobias, and we were motivated to explore whether this was a systemic problem that required further intervention on behalf of inmates in IPC.
In partnership with the ACLU-NJ, we initiated an investigation. This involved meeting with and reviewing the records of 10 inmates in IPC, as well as tracking the overall number of inmates in IPC and the length of time they spent in this status. Our interviews with the inmates confirmed that most had experiences similar to Tobias’, both in the horrific conditions they endured for years and in the flawed process that led to their prolonged placement in IPC.
As we were finalizing our investigation, something remarkable occurred: The inmates we met were suddenly released into the general population or transferred to another state prison where they would not have to be in isolation. An additional request for information to the state revealed that over the course of three months (May 1–August 1, 2018), the IPC population had decreased from 81 to 35 inmates. And of the remaining 35 inmates, one-third had been in IPC for less than a year.
Recognizing the overuse of IPC and the indelible harms it was causing, the Department of Corrections had apparently begun to revisit its placement decisions and reduce its use of prolonged isolation. We will continue to monitor this positive policy shift to ensure that no inmate experiences what Tobias lived through.