Solitary confinement conference draws a crowd

Photos by Litsa Binder Some 75 people attended a solitary confinement conference at the Sparta United Methodist Church on Nov. 7.

SPARTA — A replica Solitary Confinement Cell stood on the parking lot of the Sparta United Methodist Church on Nov. 7. Meanwhile, some 75 concerned citizens gathered inside the church to view the film “Breaking Down the Box” and to hear expert speakers discuss the need to impose strict limits on the use of solitary confinement in jails and prisons.Speakers from the American Friends Service Committee, the National Religious Committee Against Torture, the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of NJ, and two individuals who had experienced solitary confinement in NJ prisons for decades addressed those attending the Solitary Confinement Awareness Conference. The artwork of one of the panelists, Ojere Lutalo, was displayed around the room.NJ Senator Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), sponsor of S.2588, the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, attended the conference and spoke passionately of the urgent need for reform and encouraged participants to contact their own legislators to express their support for the bill. State Senate bill S.2588 and companion bill A.4510 in the Assembly will prohibit prisoner isolation unless there is reasonable cause to believe that an inmate poses a serious and immediate risk of harm to self or others, and only when restrictive intervention is insufficient.The Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, Trenton and Princeton Chapters made the Model Solitary Confinement Cell available to the community on Saturday and Sunday. Jeri Doherty, President of the Sussex County affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, spoke with several people who visited the Cell. They all agreed that a few minutes in the Cell were enough to convince them that solitary confinement in a “box” is torture. Doherty said she was moved by graffiti on the walls written by people who had visited the Cell, such as “How do you repair the man who’s been in here? “Reason for this cell is to break the human spirit,” “How is this rehabilitation?”, and “Total Madness."“The conference was quite an eye opener," said Alice O’Rourke of Sparta. "It was moving, educational and activated something in me that needs to respond to this issue with action. I am truly floored that this is going on in our country to the extent and extremes that we heard about on Saturday,”Others described the event as incredible and powerful.The conference was sponsored by NAMI Sussex, The Social Action Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Sussex County, the Sophia Inclusive Catholic Community, and the Church and Society Committee of the Sparta United Methodist Church.Organizers said follow-up meetings with interested persons at the local level will include advocacy as well as prison ministry. Anyone interested in joining the group in its efforts to bring increased awareness to the community about solitary confinement and other criminal justice reform issues should contact Litsa Binder at