New Jersey Prison Staff Pushing Incarcerated People to Fight, Complaints Allege
The alleged “fight club” is one of many issues people say plague South Woods State Prison’s “Restorative Housing Unit,” a disciplinary wing that advocates call solitary confinement by another name.
Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg Feb 09, 2023
New Jersey’s prison watchdog agency has received reports that staff at New Jersey’s South Woods State Prison’s “Restorative Housing Unit” (RHU) are committing acts of violence and egging on fights between incarcerated people, the state’s Corrections Ombudsperson confirmed to The Appeal. Ombudsperson Terry Schuster told The Appeal via email that on Feb. 3, his office sent five of those complaints to the Department of Corrections’ Special Investigations Division (SID) to be formally investigated.
“The allegations relate to security staff using excessive force and encouraging violence between incarcerated people,” Schuster said. “We received individual contacts from several people incarcerated on the RHU throughout January and escalated five of them—different alleged incidents that suggested a pattern—to SID for a formal investigation.”
“We passed them on because they were concerning,” he said.
In a written statement, the Department of Corrections told The Appeal it was “aware of talk in the community about allegations of a ‘fight club’ at the prison,” but called the accusations ”false rumors.” The department added that it maintains “a zero-tolerance policy regarding the mistreatment or exploitation of incarcerated people.” Anyone who believes they are being exploited or abused should contact SID or the Office of the Ombudsperson, reads the statement.
“At this time, there is no merit to these allegations,” the department said. “Any suggestions of a ‘fight club’ or of incarcerated persons being encouraged to fight at South Woods State Prison are not based in fact or supported by information from verified sources.”
When asked about the status of a SID probe, the DOC said it does not comment on investigations as a matter of policy.
Complaints to the ombuds office spiked since the start of the year. From Jan. 1 to Feb. 7, 25 people incarcerated in the South Woods RHU or their family members contacted the ombuds office. About half of the complaints since January have alleged “violence, threats, harassment, disrespect, and retaliation,” said Schuster, who cautioned that his office had not yet confirmed the veracity of the allegations. From October to December 2022, 15 people housed in the South Woods RHU or their loved ones had contacted the ombuds office.
The state’s Dignity Act, which Governor Phil Murphy signed into law in 2020, grants the ombudsperson the authority to, with some exceptions, conduct scheduled and unannounced inspections of prisons, investigate complaints, communicate with incarcerated people, and examine prison records. The ombuds office is independent from the Department of Corrections.
There are nearly 140 people housed at the RHU at South Woods, Schuster said. People are sent to the unit for violating prison rules, which can range from assault to refusing to follow an officer’s direction.
“I want to be cautious about suggesting that I can say anything conclusively right now, except that as the RHU population has gone up, our office has seen a spike in contacts, including many that sound concerning for reasons related to safety and protection from harm,” Schuster told The Appeal.
New Jersey first began using RHUs in 2021, less than a year after the state’s then-new Isolated Confinement Restriction Act (ICRA) went into effect. The law places limitations, with some exceptions, on the use of “isolated confinement”—defined as more than 20 hours in a cell during a 24-hour period. The law also institutes protections for vulnerable populations, including elderly prisoners, those 21 and younger, and people with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities. Under the law, a person cannot be held in isolation for more than 20 consecutive days.
Local advocates say the RHU is the DOC’s euphemism for solitary confinement, what had previously been called administrative segregation, or “ad seg.”
“As far as we can tell, the only thing that the DOC did was to change the name of the administrative segregation housing units to ‘Restorative Housing Units,’” said Amos Caley, the lead organizer for the New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, which advocated for the legislation, in an email to The Appeal. “Isolated confinement and the culture of brutality continues unchecked.”
Schuster said additional staff have recently been added to “increase access to recreation, showers, and other out-of-cell activities.” He said his office this year will monitor out-of-cell time and the implementation of the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act.
In a statement to The Appeal, the DOC defended its use of RHUs, which, they said, “is designed to encourage incarcerated people to improve behavior patterns.”
“Incarcerated persons in the RHU are afforded the opportunity to participate in authorized out-of-cell programming and congregate interactions, structured activities, and educational programs to prepare them for reintegration into general population,” the department said.
Over the last several years, prison guards at multiple New Jersey prisons—including South Woods, Bayside State Prison, and the all-women Edna Mahan Correctional Facility—have been accused of abusing incarcerated people. In some instances, officers have been criminally charged. The state’s former corrections commissioner, Marcus Hicks, resigned in 2021 following public outcry over an attack on several women housed in Edna Mahon’s RHU.
While incarcerated in New Jersey, Antonne Henshaw, co-founder and director of a reentry aid group called the Transformative Justice Initiative, was in and out of solitary confinement, spending a total of about seven years in isolation. Shortly after Henshaw came home from prison, he joined the campaign to pass the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act. In solitary confinement units, he said, violence is “par for the course.”
“You’re gonna get tuned up before you get put in a cell,” said Henshaw. “A lot of times I went to the hole I hit every corner on the way there as if I fell. If you’re going to the hole, it’s going to be rough. It’s going to be rough. That’s just what they do.”
If you or a loved one were victimized at the South Woods RHU, please contact the author at email@example.com.
Disclosure: From 2018 to 2019, Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg worked for New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, which advocated for the passage of the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act. The author is also on a short-term contract as the Storytelling Coordinator with Second Look, a campaign to create a pathway for incarcerated elders to be resentenced . Amos Caley is the group’s campaign organizer.
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