Will California Restrict Solitary Confinement?

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California legislators are weighing a major change to the state’s criminal justice system: banning long-term solitary confinement.

Known as the California Mandela Act, a proposal in the State Legislature is part of a nationwide push to curb widespread use of solitary confinement amid concerns about the mental health ramifications and apparent racial inequity in its use. The state Senate Appropriations Committee must pass the bill on Thursday for it to stay alive.

“Solitary confinement is torture,” said Hamid Yazdan Panah, advocacy director for Immigrant Defense Advocates, an organization based in Sacramento that supports the bill. “If we a long time ago accepted that torture is unacceptable in our jails and prisons, then we really have to take this issue seriously.”

Assembly Bill 2632 would prohibit solitary confinement for pregnant women, those younger than 26, those older than 59, and people with certain disabilities or mental health disorders. The approach, also called punitive segregation, would apply to jails, prisons and detention facilities in the state.

For everyone else, stretches in solitary would be limited to 15 consecutive days and 45 days in any 180-day period. Staff workers would also have to periodically check on the confined person and offer out-of-cell programming for at least four hours a day.

In California, roughly 4,000 people are in solitary confinement at any given time, and the proposed changes would lead to a 70 percent reduction in that number, said Yazdan Panah.

“We’re housing individuals in a cell the size of a parking stall, with no real outlet, with no interaction with other people for extended periods of time,” Assemblyman Chris Holden, who introduced the bill, said. “It’s just unacceptable.”

Holden’s bill is modeled after one in New York that went into effect this year after a nearly decade-long legislative battle. Colorado, New Jersey, New Mexico and at least 10 other states have also limited or banned punitive segregation, despite objections from corrections officials who argue that such rollbacks will make prisons and jails less safe.

One former inmate spent more than a decade in solitary confinement, starting when he was 16, he recently wrote in The San Francisco Chronicle. A large body of research links the practice to increased risks for self-harm and suicide, mental health deterioration and higher rates of death after release.

“I often tell people that I would have preferred a physical beating to being held in isolation,” the former inmate, Kevin McCarthy, wrote in the newspaper. “Bruises and cuts heal, but the wounds in my mind and soul are so deep that I do not believe I will ever fully recover.”

The bill’s biggest sticking point is cost. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation estimates that the state would have to initially spend more than $1 billion to comply with the law, because of a necessary increase in programming space, exercise yards and staffing.

A separate analysis by the bill’s advocates came to a different conclusion — that a reduction in the solitary confinement population would reduce space and staffing needs, and therefore lead to savings for the state of at least $60 million per year.

Where we’re traveling

Today’s tip comes from Andrew Riley:

“Living in San Francisco for 20 years, my wife and I often needed to escape the noise. Muir Beach in Marin is waaay off the beaten path. It’s marshy and quiet. Lots of weather and seals. And the sound of wind. The Pelican Inn is a B&B with a pub and restaurant to ward off the chill with a pint.

Love that place.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected] We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

And before you go, some good news

At 86, Mark Braly may be the world’s oldest water polo player. Braly, who lives in Davis and practices on the U.C. Davis campus, came to the sport only 10 years ago.

“I sometimes make goals, but there is always the suspicion they were the gift of a kind goalie,” Braly told The New York Times. “Every player in the region knows my name because they have to shout constant directions.”

Read the full story in The Times.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

Correction: Yesterday’s newsletter said that Kenneth Mejia is running for Los Angeles city attorney. He is running for city controller.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Hoppy beers, for short (4 letters).

Isabella Grullón Paz and Briana Scalia contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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