Gov. Newsom vetoes bill to end indefinite solitary confinement in California, citing safety concerns

In this photo taken on Monday, Dec. 16, 2019, an inmate looks out a window in his solitary confinement cel at the Main Jail in San Jose, Calif. Several California counties are drastically restricting their use of solitary confinement with policies that experts say could be national models. While some jurisdictions elsewhere are banning isolation for youthful offenders, pregnant women or those with pre-existing mental health diagnoses, the California counties' broader approach of generally limiting its use to inmates who engage in continued violent behavior has brought dramatic reductions in both the number of inmates in isolation and the length of time they stay there. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
An inmate looks out a window in his solitary confinement cell at the Main Jail in San Jose in 2019. (Associated Press)

Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill Thursday to limit solitary confinement in California's jails, prisons and private detention centers, rejecting advocates' hopes to restrict a practice that many experts have likened to torture.

In his Assembly Bill 2632 veto statement, Newsom said he supported "limiting the use of segregated confinement" but claimed the measure was too expansive.

"Segregated confinement is ripe for reform in the United States — and the same holds true in California. AB 2632, however, establishes standards that are overly broad and exclusions that could risk the safety of both the staff and incarcerated population within these facilities," he said.

Newsom said he would direct the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation "to develop regulations that would restrict the use of segregated confinement except in limited situations, such as where the individual has been found to have engaged in violence in the prison."

Assemblymember Chris Holden, the Pasadena Democrat who wrote AB 2632, said in a statement that the proposal was California's chance to correct a "dark history" of solitary confinement and "get it right on this issue."

“The scientific consensus and the international standards are clear. Solitary confinement is torture, and there must be limitations and oversight on the practice," he said.

Advocates immediately raised concerns with CDCR setting new rules on segregated confinement.

"One of the reasons this legislation was initiated was because advocates who have participated in the regulatory process have seen time and time again that it falls short of what is needed," Jackie Gonzalez, policy director of Immigrant Defense Advocates, said in a statement. "In directing CDCR to issue regulations on solitary confinement, Newsom fails to address the urgent need for action in jails and private detention facilities, as well as CDCR's poor track record. We need comprehensive legislation to put an end to torture in all facilities in our state."

Dubbed the California Mandela Act for the late South African civil rights activist who spent decades in prison, AB 2632 would have defined solitary, or segregated, confinement as the holding of an individual in a cell or similar space, either alone or with a cellmate, for more than 17 hours a day and with limited or no access to physical movement and services or contact with those other than corrections staff.

The bill also would have limited confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days, or 45 days in a six-month period. The isolated individuals would still be allowed time out of their cells for recreation and meals, along with treatment and services, as long as there wasn't a significant risk to the safety of other people.

Corrections staff would have had to document each incident of segregated confinement thoroughly, including a reason for the isolation, and conduct regular mental health check-ins and monitoring of the incarcerated person.

The practice would have been banned for vulnerable populations, defined as pregnant or postpartum people, individuals with certain physical and mental disabilities and those 25 and younger or 60 and older.

Advocates said the new rules would have ensured that solitary confinement wasn't being abused in California's corrections facilities, particularly for people with mental illnesses, in a way that counters rehabilitation efforts.

Craig Haney, a distinguished professor of psychology at UC Santa Cruz who has long studied the effects of solitary confinement, said the practice is "traumatizing." Those who've experienced long periods of segregated confinement, Haney said, report high rates of depression, exhaustion and anxiety, nightmares and insomnia and cognitive decline.

"They have memory problems, they have difficulties concentrating, they can't think as effectively as they once did. They forget names, they forget faces, they find their memories are fading. They try to read a book ... they can't do it," Haney said. "Sometimes these things accumulate, and the sense of desperation is so deep that people begin to hurt themselves and begin to think about taking their own lives.

"There is nothing rehabilitative whatsoever about placing somebody in solitary confinement," Haney said. "People who have been in solitary confinement for long periods of time feel fortunate to have survived it. But they're not rehabilitated by it."

The United Nations' Nelson Mandela Rules, a document that lays out the standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners, prohibits indefinite or prolonged solitary confinement, defined as 22 hours or more a day "without meaningful human contact" for more than 15 consecutive days.

Segregated confinement should be used only in "exceptional cases as a last resort," according to the rules, and banned altogether for those with mental and physical disabilities whose conditions would decline in isolation.

It was unclear throughout this year's legislative session whether AB 2632 had the support necessary to make it to Newsom's desk. Several moderate Democrats either abstained from voting on the measure or joined Republicans in opposing it.

Law enforcement groups raised serious concerns about removing a tool they said prevents violence and keeps facilities safer, and argued that the Board of State and Community Corrections was the proper agency to set these standards.

CDCR attached a hefty price tag to AB 2632 with an estimate of more than $1 billion in one-time costs to expand programming space and exercise yards at its facilities, and $200 million more annually to increase the necessary staff to adhere to the regulations.

Advocates have disputed those numbers, saying they are inflated. Others say the cost is worth it.

Michael Romano, director of the Stanford Law School Three Strikes Project, said California has an "antiquated and brutal prison and jail system" that requires change, even if it's going to be expensive.

"It might take reconfiguring facilities. It might take additional staff," Romano said. "But those are the things that we should do and can do in order to stop torturing people."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.