Legislators in California are thinking about a big change to the state’s criminal justice system: making it illegal to put people in jail alone for long periods.
A bill in the State Legislature is called the “California Mandela Act.” It is part of a nationwide effort to limit the use of solitary confinement because of worries about its effects on mental health and what seems to be racial bias in its use. For the bill to stay alive, the state Senate Appropriations Committee must pass it on Thursday.
“Solitary confinement is torture,” said Hamid Yazdan Panah, the director of advocacy for the Sacramento-based group Immigrant Defense Advocates, which backs the bill. “If we’ve known for a long time that torture in our jails and prisons is wrong, then we need to take this issue very seriously.”
Assembly Bill 2632 would stop putting pregnant women, people under the age of 26, people over the age of 59, and people with certain disabilities or mental health disorders in solitary confinement. This method, which is also called “punitive segregation,” would be used in jails, prisons, and other places where people are being held in the state.
For everyone else, the most time they could spend alone would be 15 days in a row and 45 days in 180 days. Staff members would also have to check on the person from time to time and give them something to watch for at least four hours a day.
Yazdan Panah said that the proposed changes would cut the number of people in solitary confinement by 70%. At any given time, there are about 4,000 people in solitary confinement in California.
Assemblyman Chris Holden, who brought the bill to the floor, said, “We’re putting people in cells the size of a parking space, with no real way out and no contact with other people for long periods.” “It’s just unacceptable.”
Holden’s bill is based on one in New York that went into effect this year after a legislative battle that lasted almost ten years. Punitive segregation has also been limited or banned in Colorado, New Jersey, New Mexico, and at least 10 other states. This is despite the objections of corrections officials who say that these changes will make prisons and jails less safe.
One former prisoner wrote recently in The San Francisco Chronicle that he had been locked up alone since he was 16 years old. A lot of research shows that the practice makes people more likely to hurt themselves or kill themselves, have their mental health get worse, and die after they get out.
Kevin McCarthy, a former prisoner, wrote in the newspaper, “I often tell people that I would have rather been beaten than locked up alone.” “Cuts and bruises heal, but the wounds in my mind and soul are so deep that I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again.”
The cost is the main problem with the bill. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says that the state would have to spend more than $1 billion at first to follow the law. This is because the state would have to add more space for programs, exercise yards, and staff.
A different analysis done by supporters of the bill came to a different conclusion: if the number of people in solitary confinement went down, space and staffing needs would go down, which would save the state at least $60 million per year.