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Calif. lawmaker reintroduces bill to restrict the use of solitary confinement by jails and prisons

The bill would limit confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days and prohibit placing anyone in solitary who is pregnant or has a physical or mental disability

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By Andrew Sheeler
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A state lawmaker has reintroduced a bill, dubbed the California Mandela Act, to restrict the use of solitary confinement by jails and prisons.

Assembly Bill 280, by Assemblyman Chris Holden, D- Pasadena, would limit confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days. It would prohibit placing anyone who is pregnant, has a physical or mental disability or who is younger than 26 or older than 59 into solitary confinement.

Holden said in a Tuesday press conference that solitary confinement leaves irreversible physical, mental and emotional damage.

Those held in solitary confinement were 78% more likely to die by suicide within a year of their release, compared to those not similarly isolated, according a 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“Solitary confinement truly is torture,” Holden said.

Nor does solitary confinement make prisons safer, according to a 2020 study published in Criminology. It found that prisoners held in solitary were 5% to 7.5% more likely to be convicted of a new crime after their release.

“California cannot reverse the damage already done by solitary confinement, but our state can prevent future harm,” Holden said.

AB 280 is inspired by and named after South African leader Nelson Mandela, who experienced solitary confinement during his 27 years of imprisonment by the apartheid government.

“I found solitary confinement the most forbidding aspect of prison life,” Mandela wrote in his 1994 autobiography “The Long Walk to Freedom.”

Last fall, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a similar bill by Holden, AB 2632. In his veto statement, Newsom wrote that the bill “establishes standards that are overly broad and exclusions that could risk the safety of both the staff and incarcerated population within these facilities.”

Newsom said that the bill would “categorically prohibit” a large swath of the incarcerated population from being put in solitary confinement, “even if such a placement is to protect the safety of all incarcerated individuals in the institution.”

The governor said he also was concerned about how the bill could interrupt other inmates’ rehabilitation efforts.

Though he vetoed the legislation, Newsom said he was directing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to develop regulations to limit the use of solitary confinement to certain situations,”such as where the individual has been found to have engaged in violence in the prison.”

He further directed CDCR to allow those in solitary access to a small group yard “when feasible and available.”

Holden acknowledged Newsom’s veto in his press conference, but said the governor is aware of “the deep need for reform.”

“It is my hope that the Legislature and governor can come together in an agreement on a policy that will treat all people in this state with the respect and dignity they deserve,” Holden said.

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