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Editorial: Solitary confinement is torture. Gov. Newsom can limit it in California

Barbed wire surrounds a prison tower with a guard inside.
Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City in Northern California.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Extended solitary confinement in California prisons was supposed to have ended, for all practical purposes, after a 2015 legal settlement in a case brought by plaintiffs who had been held in isolation for 10 years or longer in the security housing unit at Pelican Bay State Prison, near Crescent City.

That same year, on the other side of the country, Kalief Browder ended his own life after having been traumatized by 700 days in isolation at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York for allegedly stealing a backpack. Browder’s death and the California settlement brought nationwide attention to solitary confinement, a cruel practice that eliminates human contact except for a few minutes a day.

Then-President Obama called on the nation to reconsider solitary confinement, correctly noting that studies show that it tends to increase hostility and violence.

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“Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day for months, sometimes for years at a time?” Obama asked. “That is not going to make us safer. It’s not going to make us stronger. If those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt? It’s not smart.”

New York took action, finally passing a bill last year that sharply restricts solitary confinement. It followed the lead of Colorado, then New Jersey. About a dozen states at least modestly limit who can be isolated in prison, and for how long.

But not California. Earlier this year, the court supervising the 2015 California settlement extended its supervision over the case a second time after finding continuing violations by state prison officials.

What’s missing is a state law that applies the restrictions on isolation uniformly and universally while clarifying rules and definitions that currently are subject to interpretation.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has a bill on his desk that would erase much of the wiggle room over the use of a practice that amounts to mental torture in state prisons, county jails and private immigration detention centers. His signature is urgently needed.

Racism continues to infect the criminal justice system, leading to disproportionate numbers of Black and Latino Americans in prison. California can continue a program to correct the problem if Gov. Gavin Newsom signs AB 256.

AB 2632, approved by both the Assembly and the Senate, would prohibit jails, prisons and other institutions from keeping a person apart from others (not counting prison staff) for more than 17 hours a day, for more than 15 consecutive days. It would also bar isolation for more than 45 days within any 180-day period — and ban isolation completely for people who are particularly vulnerable, including pregnant and postpartum women, people with defined mental or physical disabilities, and prisoners younger than 26 or older than 59.

The bill is also known as the California Mandela Act because it would at long last bring the state into line with the “Nelson Mandela Rules” — the United Nations’ minimum standards for humane treatment of prisoners.

The arguments against the bill fall short. Law enforcement officials say the state prison system ought to decide how best to limit solitary confinement through the regulatory process. But the system has failed to adequately do so. That’s why a law is needed.

Elect Rob Bonta to a full term as California attorney general.

Prison officials claim the law would require spending millions, or even billions, to create adequate “yard” space to accommodate people currently in solitary and those from whom they must be segregated — prisoners from rival gangs, or anyone else they would harm or who would harm them. But allowing people to see the sky as well as other human beings doesn’t require massive new construction just as the state is beginning to close prisons. It requires only some additional scheduling of the type already commonly used to manage prison populations.

Officials also claim that isolation is frequently used for inmates’ own protection. That may have been a valid argument during the era of extreme prison crowding, where triple bunks in cells were the norm. But it’s now possible to house people alone in single cells when the need arises, without imposing extreme isolation.

Perhaps the most common argument against the bill is that prison is, after all, prison — a place intended to punish.

But punishment is meant to consist of deprivation of liberty, not sanity. California too often fails to make the distinction. The bill on Newsom’s desk will help.


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