Joint Hearing Addresses Use of Solitary Confinement in Calif. Prisons
At a joint hearing of the Assembly and Senate Public Safety Committees on Wednesday, lawmakers examined the state’s use of security housing units for indefinite isolation of prisoners, the Sacramento Bee reports.
The hearing follows a two-month inmate hunger strike protesting the practice (White, Sacramento Bee, 10/9).
Background on Hunger Strike
In July, 30,000 inmates began refusing meals as part of the protest.
Members of the hunger strike — organized by inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison — sought a five-year limit on such isolation, as well as new educational and rehabilitation programs.
Prisoners’ advocates now are pushing the state to:
- End the use of indefinite terms in solitary confinement;
- Change the criteria for identifying inmates who are gang members; and
- Reform the process by which prisoners can renounce gang activity and be released from solitary confinement.
At the hearing on Wednesday, Senate Public Safety Committee Chair Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) said, “[T]he issues that were raised during the hunger strike are real, and concern about the conditions in California’s supermax prisons cannot be ignored.”
Lawmakers also said they lack information from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation related to security housing units, including:
- The rate of nonviolent offenders placed in solitary confinement;
- Data on attempted suicides that take place in solitary confinement (Sacramento Bee, 10/9);
- The number of inmates who left solitary confinement with a mental health condition; and
- How inmates who spent time in solitary confinement fared after being released from prison (Calefati, Contra Costa Times, 10/9).
Hancock said that there is “very little useful and well-organized data that answers the questions policymakers need to make decisions, and as a result, it seems that there is very little practice informed by an understanding of actual outcomes.”
Assembly Public Safety Committee Chair Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) said the policies allowing extended stays in security housing units were “beyond the pale” (Sacramento Bee, 10/9).
Early next year, Hancock and Ammiano are expected to introduce legislation to reduce or end the use of solitary confinement in state prisons (Contra Costa Times, 10/9).
Comments From Prisoner Advocates
During the hearing, prisoners’ advocates testified that the use of solitary confinement can lead to long-lasting problems for inmates, including mental illnesses.
Margaret Winter — head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project — said prisoners “subjected to prolonged social isolation” undergo “extreme psychic punishment and pain.”
In addition, UC-Irvine professor Keramet Reiter said prisoners held in isolation could have a harder time assimilating back into a community after their release (Bernstein, Reuters, 10/9).
During the hearing, Michael Stainer — director of CDCR’s Division of Adult Institutions — said the use of solitary confinement is necessary to regulate prison gang activity and protect other inmates.
However, he noted that the department has begun implementing a new pilot program that “addresses individual behavior and individual accountability” when determining whether to remove prisoners from solitary confinement.
“We are reviewing inmates every week, and some are being retained [in solitary] based on behaviors and some are being released based upon lack of those behaviors,” Stainer added (Sacramento Bee, 10/9).
In response to lawmakers’ questions about data, Stainer said CDCR does not have the resources to track the effects of solitary confinement on prisoners (Palta, “KPCC News,” KPCC, 10/9).
Meanwhile, Stainer acknowledged that prisoners had been disciplined for taking part in the hunger strike, which he described as a “mass disturbance” (Reuters, 10/9).