California needs to limit the use of solitary confinement
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California needs to limit the use of solitary confinement

Assembly Bill 280, the California Mandela Act on Solitary Confinement, aims to reduce the use of segregated confinement in the state’s prisons, jails, and private detention facilities.

California lawmakers are again considering legislation limiting the use of solitary confinement. Assembly Bill 280, the California Mandela Act on Solitary Confinement, aims to reduce the use of segregated confinement in the state’s prisons, jails, and private detention facilities. On any given day, there are, on average, 4,000 California inmates in solitary confinement, and the proposed changes could reduce this number by as much as 70 percent.

Long periods of solitary confinement can have severe and lasting psychological, neurological, and physiological consequences that significantly worsen the longer a person remains solitary. Symptoms include anxiety, depression, insomnia, hypersensitivity, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The United Nations has long advocated for reducing solitary confinement, considering the practice harsh and torturous.

While it is sometimes necessary to separate some individuals from other inmates for their protection or the protection of others, it is nonetheless imperative that living conditions be humane and that solitary confinement not be used as punishment. California’s proposed legislation would prohibit the use of segregated confinement for particularly vulnerable populations, including persons younger than 25 years old, older than 60 years old, people with a mental or physical disability, and women who are pregnant, within eight weeks postpartum, or have recently suffered a miscarriage or had a recent abortion.

For inmates who don’t fall into one of these categories, the state bill establishes standards for using segregated confinement more appropriately to reduce the negative health consequences of prolonged isolation. Time spent in segregated confinement would be limited to a maximum of 15 consecutive days and 45 days within a 180-day timeframe. Additionally, staff members would be required to regularly assess the well-being of inmates held in solitary and provide them with at least four hours of programming outside their cell each day.

Last year, a similar bill was passed by the state legislature, but Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed it, saying that although segregated confinement is “ripe for reform,” the act would establish “overly broad standards and exclusions that could risk the safety of both the staff and incarcerated population within these facilities.” Newsom further argued the bill “could interrupt the rehabilitation efforts of other incarcerated people.”

This year’s version of the legislation, AB 280, addresses the governor’s concerns. It includes language making it clear that individuals may still be placed in individual housing and that the act does not require inmates to be placed back in the general population once they have reached the 15-day limit. California’s facilities would only be required to provide inmates in individual housing with adequate programming and support.

Other opponents of the bill point to the potential fiscal costs. Last year, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CCDR) claimed the reforms would require $1 billion to cover the costs of increased programming space, additional exercise yards, and new staffing requirements. In response, the proposal clarifies that nothing in the bill mandates construction and states that a facility may repurpose or redesignate existing space to accommodate out-of-cell time or programming for individuals as needed.

Furthermore, a cost report from the Berkeley Underground Scholars, a group advocating for solitary reform, estimated that California would save between $60 million and $300 million annually from limiting solitary. According to the report, “CDCR has an estimated 9,000 specialized beds and already has significant resources that can be dedicated to programming to reduce the use of solitary confinement.”

California could learn from the 23 states that have already passed legislation limiting or prohibiting solitary confinement. New York and Connecticut’s laws have 15-day limits on the use of solitary and prohibit the practice for vulnerable populations in ways similar to the California proposal. Both of those states have reported significant cost savings.

While solitary confinement may be necessary for the safety of inmates and correctional staff, it should be used rarely, applied fairly, and subject to reasonable limitations. This year’s version of California’s Mandela Act includes important clarifications addressing Gov. Newsom’s and critics’ concerns with prior legislation. Now, it is time for California to move ahead with these much-needed reforms.

A version of this commentary originally appeared in The Orange County Register.