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California will try to limit solitary confinement — again

Sacramento County's main jail in Downtown Sacramento, Oct. 11, 2018.
Andrew Nixon
Sacramento County's main jail in Downtown Sacramento, Oct. 11, 2018.

For the second year in a row, there’s an effort underway to reform and significantly reduce the use of solitary confinement in California.

Last year, a version of the California Mandela Act gained bipartisan support and passed through both chambers of the state Legislature. The measure would have defined solitary confinement, limited it to 15 days and banned it altogether for people who are young, old, pregnant or disabled.

However, the bill was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who acknowledged that, although the practice of solitary confinement was “ripe for reform,” the bill was too sweeping. He said he would direct the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to make a more limited set of changes, but left out a timeline or any reference to modifications at county jails and immigration detention centers.

For its part, CDCR says it is “currently drafting regulations that address the issues the Governor raised in his veto message.” The agency did not give additional information about when the regulations would be available for review, but that CDCR will go through a process allowing the public to comment on them.

Legislature takes up solitary confinement again

In the meantime, the bill is back as AB 280, reintroduced by Assembly member Chris Holden, a Democrat representing the Pasadena area, along with a coalition of advocacy groups.

“A comprehensive legislative solution is needed and oversight is needed — independent oversight,” said Hamid Yazdan Panah, Advocacy Director for Immigrant Defense Advocates, a project funded by a Bay Area nonprofit, which supports the bill. “You can't send the fox to guard the henhouse.”

Solitary confinement has been found to have serious and long-term effects on the minds and bodies of incarcerated people. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, people held in solitary confinement are more likely to die younger from suicide or other factors and Black and Hispanic men are often over-represented in segregated populations.

Vanessa Ramos is a community organizer for Disability Rights California, which is sponsoring the bill. She was 19 and a new mother when she went to a Los Angeles County jail on a drug charge in 2001. Ramos says she fought with other inmates and was placed in solitary repeatedly.

“I remember, you know, starting to be so bored that I would pull apart my uniform and I would tweeze my eyebrows from the metal toilet because I could kind of see myself,” she said. “You know, today I know that those experiences are very dehumanizing.”

If the Mandela Act passes, facilities would be banned from involuntarily moving anyone younger than 26; older than 59; pregnant, or recently pregnant; or experiencing certain physical or mental disabilities into solitary.

Corrections leaders in California say the bill is tantamount to getting rid of solitary confinement entirely. In their statement against the bill last year, the California State Sheriffs' Association said solitary is necessary to maintain safety in carceral settings. In an email, a representative from the association said it has not yet taken a position on the most recent iteration of the bill, but that it is “substantially similar” to the one they opposed last year.

Defining solitary confinement

A large component of the bill, Yazdan Panah says, is defining what solitary confinement is.

In its Mandela Rules, the United Nations defines solitary as “the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact.” It says the confinement is prolonged, and should be prohibited, if it is “in excess of 15 consecutive days.” Otherwise, the person is being tortured.

AB 280, if it passes, would define solitary or segregated confinement as lasting longer than 17 hours a day, with or without a cellmate, and lacking contact with people other than prison staff.

“When someone exhibits violent behavior and then you lock them away for two weeks with complete isolation, they're going to continue to exhibit that type of behavior once they're let out,” Yazdan Panah said. “It's a cycle of violence that continues.”

A Yale Law study from 2021 shows that on a given day, between 41,000 to 48,000 prisoners in the U.S. had been held in solitary for 15 or more days.

The bill is expected to be heard later this spring in the Assembly Committee on Public Safety.

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