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Review of California's Most Mixed Legislative Session Yet for Prison Reform

Posted by Sara Cooper | Oct 12, 2023 | 0 Comments

This legislative season in California regarding prison reform that one wasn't to be predicted, revealing how the state is not as progressive as many voters thought.

It's more so about how Gov. Gavin Newsom has been signing and vetoing hundreds of bills without a certain pattern.

According to the state's database, more than 120 bills involving CDCR has been introduced into the recent season. Some of the prison-related bills included Senate Bill 474, reducing markups on canteen items that prisoners purchase for basic necessities out of their own pocket, referred to as the BASIC Act introduced by Sen. Josh Becker from Menlo Park.

“The result is increased rates of food and nutrition insecurity in the mainly low-income, BIPOC communities that most incarcerated people come from and return to,” said Leslie Soble, senior manager of the Food In Prison Project at Impact Justice whom cosponsored the bill and operates Harvest of the Month for California prisons. “This is a critical and overlooked health equity issue, with clear solutions.”

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “Eduardo Dumbrique, who served more than two decades in state prison for a first-degree murder charge in Los Angeles County for which he was later exonerated, said even with three meals provided each day, the food he was served in prison often did not feel adequate.”

“It's not enough,” he said. “If you don't go to the canteen, you'll be hungry.”

Sen. Becker was interviewed last month about the bill, responding with many examples of how these markups were outrageous, from coffee costing over 9 dollars and a roll of toilet paper being a dollar each.

“These are basic necessities that have egregious markups — we're talking toothpaste, feminine hygiene products,” Becker said, explaining that if the goal for most incarcerated people is successful reentry back into the world, inflated prices can hurt that effort. “It burdens them with debt and makes reentry harder.”

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which advocated for Senate Bill 474, estimated that this will save system impacted families up to 16 million dollars a year, as the law goes into effect next year.

“This is a huge win, not only for our Californians that are incarcerated but for their families who will be able to put that money into savings for their personal needs and goals,” Carlos Hernandez with the MILPA Collective, an advocacy organization comprised of those affected by the criminal justice system, said in a news release. “Also, I believe it is equally important that our government has demonstrated to historically disenfranchised communities that they are willing and capable of uplifting their values and finding all Californians worthy of human dignity.”

Senate Bill 309 was also signed into law by Newsom and introduced by Sen Dave Cortese from San Jose, ensuring protections for prisoners who use religious head coverings or attire that are not able to be replaced yet until they can afford similar items for daily use.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “Nazeehah Khan, the policy government affairs manager for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in California, said in a news release that the organization had heard from and represented many Muslim people across the state who had been denied the ability to keep their religious garments or maintain religious grooming practices.”

“CAIR-CA found this problem had grown into a pattern birthed from the lack of a statewide, uniform policy and resolved to tackle the issue at its root,” Khan said in the statement. “Religious expression is not only a civil right — but an inherent, human right.”

This would also require state jails and prisons to allow folks to maintain their hair or beards for religious reasons.

Not all prison-related bills passed as many had hoped.

Backed by Cortese, the “HOME” Act or AB 1306, that would not allow CDCR to collaborate with ICE for released prisoners that they can report on if they are determined to have immigration status. More than 1,000 people were transferred last year from their placed prison to federal immigration authorities.

“I believe current law strikes the right balance on limiting interaction to support community trust and cooperation between law enforcement and local communities,” Newsom wrote in his veto statement. “For this reason, I cannot sign this bill.”

More bills such as AB 428 regarding solitary confinement to limit the days and increase mental health treatment in prisons were cut before even reaching to the governor's desk. This would have been possibly vetoed by Newsom however due to CDCR's strong defense calling it “restricted housing.”

More to come about the 2023-2024 California legislative session.

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