California lawmakers move to ban solitary confinement for long stints and vulnerable inmates

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In this photo taken on Monday, Dec. 16, 2019, an inmate looks out a window in his solitary confinement cel at the Main Jail in San Jose, Calif. Several California counties are drastically restricting their use of solitary confinement with policies that experts say could be national models. While some jurisdictions elsewhere are banning isolation for youthful offenders, pregnant women or those with pre-existing mental health diagnoses, the California counties' broader approach of generally limiting its use to inmates who engage in continued violent behavior has brought dramatic reductions in both the number of inmates in isolation and the length of time they stay there. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
A jail inmate in solitary confinement in San Jose. Lawmakers have approved legislation to restrict the use of solitary confinement at prisons, jails and private detention centers in California. (Ben Margot / Associated Press)

California lawmakers sent Gov. Gavin Newsom a bill Tuesday to limit solitary confinement in jails, prisons and private detention centers and ban its use altogether for vulnerable populations such as pregnant and elderly people.

The fate of the legislation, Assembly Bill 2632, had remained uncertain through this year's legislative session due to strong opposition from law enforcement groups and concerns from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation about the bill's price tag.

The state corrections agency estimated that the restrictions on solitary confinement could add more than $1 billion in one-time costs to expand its programming space and exercise yards, and $200 million annually to maintain the staff necessary to comply with the new regulations.

Civil rights and criminal justice reform advocates said those numbers were inflated and that the restrictions are necessary to protect human rights and prevent abusive treatment of people in custody.

"The international community has made it very clear that solitary confinement is torture. There needs to be some limitations and some constraints on how it's used and when it's used," said Assemblymember Chris Holden, the Pasadena Democrat who wrote the bill. "We've seen way too many instances of how solitary confinement has been used to not just correct behavior or isolate for some specified period of time, but really to break people, to break their spirit, to break their will."

The legislation defines solitary, or segregated, confinement as holding a person in a cell or similar space with severe restrictions on physical activity and movement and minimal or zero contact with people other than corrections staff for more than 17 hours a day. The bill also covers instances when someone is confined with a cellmate but is cut off from other contact and services for most of a day.

The bill restricts such confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days and a total of 45 days in a six-month span. Those isolated individuals would be granted some time out of their cells to access services, treatment, recreation and meals, unless there is a significant risk to safety.

Solitary confinement would be prohibited for people 25 and younger or 60 and older, those with certain physical and mental disabilities, and those who are pregnant or in postpartum recovery.

Staff would have to follow strict protocol when placing someone into isolated confinement, including documenting why the person was being segregated, and conducting consistent monitoring and frequent mental health check-ins. The Office of the Inspector General and the California Board of State and Community Corrections would have to assess corrections facilities each year for compliance and produce an annual public report.

Cory Salzillo, legislative director for the California State Sheriffs' Assn., said the new rules would make facilities more dangerous.

"We think the restrictions on certain types of placements are going to make facilities less safe for other incarcerated persons, including people who might need protection themselves," Salzillo said, adding that there are often gang affiliations or hostile factions within facilities that require additional safety measures.

"They shouldn’t be housed with either certain groups or individuals, and the sort of rigorous statutory restrictions would make that difficult," he said.

During debates over the legislation, Republicans raised concerns that limiting solitary confinement would encourage violence, even murder, among inmates. The bill includes contingencies for violent situations by allowing staff the discretion to keep certain people in individual settings so long as they have access to services and out-of-cell time.

"If you have the revolving door of, 'OK, you get a couple weeks and then you get to go back out and do it all over again,' where's the incentive to not engage in that type of behavior? There isn't any," state Sen. Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) said Monday during debate in the Senate.

But proponents of AB 2632 say that solitary confinement more often negatively affects rehabilitation and leads to increased recidivism rates. The legislation stems from years of legal efforts to change conditions in California facilities.

"Solitary confinement does not prevent violence, but actually destroys the body and mind, and makes it more likely for individuals to harm themselves or others," said Hamid Yazdan Panah, advocacy director for Immigrant Defense Advocates, one of the organizations supporting the bill.

California settled a class-action lawsuit in 2015 that alleged hundreds of people incarcerated at Pelican Bay State Prison had faced long stints in solitary confinement, some for over a decade.

Isolated people in the prison had launched hunger strikes to protest the conditions in 2011 and 2013, paving way for the lawsuit, which claimed that those in segregated settings spent most of their days in cramped and windowless spaces and without human contact or services.

A lawsuit filed in 2018 similarly alleged that incarcerated people in Sacramento County jails were subjected to "harsh, prolonged, and undue isolation," where they were deprived of "human contact, programming, fresh air, and sunlight" for weeks or months at a time.

Margot Mendelson, legal director for the advocacy nonprofit Prison Law Office, said AB 2632 would strengthen accountability in California's corrections facilities and better align the state with its criminal justice reform values.

"It has the potential to reduce a lot of severe harm," Mendelson said.

The Assembly gave the bill final approval with a 41-16 vote. Newsom has until Sept. 30 to sign or veto the measure.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.