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Advocates working on ending solitary confinement in local jails throughout the state

Posted by Sara Cooper | Sep 06, 2023 | 0 Comments

Inmates throughout California have been known to report not receiving any sunlight or hygiene cleanups in their cells, sometimes weeks on end.

According to the Eagle Tribune, “Across more than 120 jails in California's 58 counties, conditions behind bars can vary wildly, from the sprawling campus of San Diego's women's jail to the 60-year-old “dungeon” known as Men's Central jail in Los Angeles.”

Local bookings in California jails are known to have prisoners stay in isolation, for weeks, months, and even years without any human contact or proper rehabilitation.

Assemblymember Chris Holden is trying to change that. The Pasadena Democrat introduced Assembly Bill 280 this year to limit “segregated confinement”— what is colloquially known as “solitary.” It is generally a lockup that lasts 22 or more hours each day.

The legislation aims to make state prisons and county jails more humane by restricting isolated confinement to 15 consecutive days, or 45 total days in a six-month span according to the Eagle Tribune. Lockups would be capped at 4 hours a day with remaining outside time to be used for recreation and rehabilitation services.

Solitary confinement though has been a difficult challenge to ban in the state despite its progressive reforms. There was an argument made by political officials including Governor Gavin Newsom that prohibiting it in prisons can increase violence behind bars.

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a similar bill, arguing that while the issue was “ripe for reform,” the proposal was “overly broad” in a way that could “risk the safety of both the staff and incarcerated population within these facilities.” Instead, he directed his state prison agency to rewrite rules to restrict segregated confinement to “limited situations,” which are currently being drafted.

The veto decision was not in application towards county jails, ones that are not under the authority of Newsom but are facilities that tend to have the worst conditions including overcrowding and understaffing. They are typically ran elected sheriffs on the county level and have a variety of legislative runnings that could be different from one jail to another.

This is a bill that is still is enduring struggles despite overall support from both the state Senate and Assembly. The measure has been opposed by corrections, and the budgeting for improving conditions would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

The passing of the bill would be “up-to-code” with the United Nations guidelines on how isolation is used, ones that advocates want to be enforced for local lockup as for individuals are barred until they are in trial yet have not been convicted of a crime.

“Frankly, it's an unrecognized scandal that so many people are suffering so significantly in these environments,” said Craig Haney, a UC Santa Cruz psychology professor who has studied the long-term effects of solitary confinement.

AB 280 would be bringing a showdown of responsibilities that sheriffs probably cannot live up to for their operating jails, as their argument is which confinement is for the purpose of separating inmates that are classified as violent or are convicted with high-level crimes.

Segregated confinement is even in existence for some jails, where prisoners stay in their cells for extreme long periods of time. Not enough staff, not enough space, and not enough safety ensured is what sheriffs argue.

“It's not as simple as this legislation makes it out to be,” said California State Sheriffs' Assn. President and Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux. “More and more oversight is being implemented into something that seems to be carrying a political narrative versus real solutions.”

Where the state makes major decisions on legislation, not far from the Capitol is Sacramento County's Main Jail that been known for an increase of in-custody deaths. People can hear prisoners on the inside talking and screaming to themselves for being in isolation while smells coming out that showed how confinement was a common occurrence with no sanitation given. For one person, Dandrae Martin, who was charged with murder for a mass shooting at a nightclub in the city that resulted in six deaths, was a part of this confinement chain at the jail.

So many people in the Sacramento jail have mental illness — about 60% — that the facility has become a “de facto psychiatric hospital,” said Sheriff Jim Cooper.

“There's no place for them to go. It's just backwards,” Cooper said. “County jails should not be psychiatric facilities.”

Under a 2020 federal consent decree, people incarcerated in Sacramento County's main jail are supposed to be allowed to spend at least 17 hours out of their cells each week, with limited exceptions. This has not become an actual happening however.

“Dozens of people spend almost every hour of the day locked in small, dark cells. People go weeks or even months without any access to fresh air,” a 2022 report co-written by the advocacy organization Prison Law Office found. “Even when they are permitted to go to outdoor recreation, they are confined to another grim concrete space, with no grass, no exercise equipment, and dark tarps that block any view of the outside world.”

Cooper, a Democrat who was elected sheriff last year after serving eight years as an assemblyman, said he is trying to improve conditions.

His plan is to expand the jail's recreation space for more than 1,700 prisoners while his ongoing lobbying with county supervisors in building a new facility that would resolve the outstanding requirements in the consent decree, resulting in the plan being approved to update the jail and add in a new mental health annex.

His worries is that the Assembly Bill would making additional requirements hard to fulfill, as prisons are not built for long-term housing despite the increases of long sentencing.

While his time in the Legislature, Cooper was in grand disagreement with his own Democrat Party with how criminal justice policies were formed and applied, say they are misguided in solving the problem.

“Mr. Holden wants a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach,” he said. “It doesn't work.”

The jail conditions have been a decades-long problem in Los Angeles County where, according to department officials, as of mid-August 830 people were in administrative segregation — some isolated for disciplinary reasons, and others for their own protection or for broader safety and security concerns.

De facto isolation is a big component of confinement itself, with hundreds of severely mentally ill individuals that are alone most of the time in cells. The Department of Justice reached a settlement agreement in 2015 that the county agreed to give mentally disabled people 20 hours of outside time a week: 10 hours of free time and 10 hours of programming. This requirement however has not been in full effect sadly by the county.

People who are in solitary confinement are typically in poor conditions, staying in filthy cells and using trash bags for warmth while sleeping despite court-appointed monitors making visits.

John, a prisoner that spent time in isolation at Twin Towers Correctional Facility, was a horrific experience that left him in shambles with the already pending charges facing him. His cell was splatters with dried feces, not touching it in order to prevent disease exposure in an already poor state.

He was imprisoned for 58 days for charges of simple battery, some misdemeanors, and much more, leading him to spend all 24 hours of a day in a cell. He was given a few opportunities to get some outdoor time for “recreation,” but “recreation” was consisted of being chained to a table in an indoor area with other prisoners so he denied that time since it was “wasteful” to him.

“I felt a little bit less than a human being the whole time I was in there,” he said. “It was subhuman conditions, and then there's a toll it takes on your mind.”

He wasn't isolated for bad behavior either, it was because he admitted to staff that he was suicidal, he told the Times. He is no longer in prison and is sober free, being off of drugs for some time now.

“If you're spending time alone at home you have a television or something to harness loneliness or depression or deep sadness,” John said. “But when you are in solitary you don't have that. You don't have the luxury of grasping onto something for sanity. Maybe you work out. And you sleep. That's all there is.”

With response from the Sheriff's Department, they were not able to identify John's experiences in simple explanation, but that all allegations are taken crucially.

Seven facilities are owned by Los Angeles County, the largest jail system in the country with nearly 13,000 prisoners. Half of the incarcerated population are in the process of pretrial, and 42 percent are classified as in being vulnerable states with their mental health.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna opposes the changes being debated in the state Legislature, arguing that the proposed restrictions on segregated confinement would hamper the jail's ability to manage inmates with “severe and volatile” mental health problems.

“Segregated confinement must always be a readily accessible option not only for these inmates but also for others who have a higher risk of encountering retaliatory violence based on their alleged crimes, gang affiliation, or other factors,” he wrote in a letter to lawmakers.

In Riverside, concerns are relative as well with solitary confinement, regarding reductions and their effectiveness on safety for all prisoners along with ensuring outdoor access for all inmates.

Their county's five jails have a population of 4,000 individuals, with less than 100 in segregated confinement, officials said. Two-person cells are for those in segregation and others can be out together in groups of 4 or less as an example.

According to Sheriff Chad Bianco, “There is absolutely no one with common sense or any knowledge of how a jail or prisoner operates who would think this is a good idea.”

In San Francisco, where their county jails are facing charges for unfair lockup conditions, Captain James Quanico says there isn't a day where he has enough deputies to properly run the jail.

Quanico said, he's moved dozens of people out of administrative separation, bringing the number still there down to roughly 90. He also created a new housing pod of around 20 previous administrative separation inmates who can now be in a group, which helps them get out of their cells more often.

Legislation that has continued to be suggested and considered by California lawmakers regarding eliminating isolation for vulnerable populations, is being extended to those with serious mental and physical disabilities; pregnant and postpartum people; and anyone younger than 26 or older than 59. The law would also require regular mental health checks, documentation of when segregation is used, meals, treatment, and any programming.

Studies have shown that isolation for long periods of time can lead to worsening mental illness and the possibility or an increase to hallucinations, psychosis, and suicidal thoughts.

“Isolation itself is what does the damage,” Haney said. “It almost feels like [jails are] designed to make mental health problems worse rather than better.”

This proposed law has grand support, and advocates argue that sheriffs and correctional officers are not making efforts in finding alternatives that are actually safe and within reason to not contend to isolation.

“You can't just put people into a box and not have a plan,” said Hamid Yazdan Panah, advocacy director for Immigrant Defense Advocates.

Newsom hasn't indicated whether he would sign this year's legislation, but recently said he is still working with the Legislature and the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to “land on an agreement” for segregated confinement in prisons.

The time is cutting close. With the committee voting on it starting last Friday, the final day that can the decision be made on whether to pass the bill is September 14th of this year.

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