Column: California should reform use of solitary confinement

Why do you have any tender feelings for those locked in solitary confinement in our jails, jails and immigrant detention centers? They must be the worst of the worst, right? The unrepentant serial killers, the gang leaders who carry on as they always have behind bars, the criminals who have nothing to lose and don’t mind breaking a few skulls if they get the chance?

Personally, I have little sympathy for violent criminals who continue their violence while incarcerated. But as with most things involving crime and punishment, it turns out that solitary confinement isn’t so clear-cut. Shockingly, or perhaps not, this harshest of measures is often applied haphazardly, with little or no accountability.

California has a long and troubled history of using solitary confinement on dubious grounds, sometimes for years — one reason state prisons have been under judicial oversight for the past seven years. In fact, there isn’t even a standard definition of what counts as a loner in this state, or what we call it — the hole, the lockdown, the segregation — and there’s little way to keep track of who’s been affected, for how long, or why .

Vanessa Ramos can tell you all about the terrible injustice of the current system. She still has nightmares years after her time in solitary confinement, when she was incarcerated in Los Angeles’ Twin Towers prison as a 19-year-old and convicted of stealing vintage Chevys and selling drugs. She lived on the streets after being abused as a child and had given birth to a child just weeks before her arrest.

She says she was both detoxing from drugs and dealing with the loss of her baby — not knowing where the child was — when she ended up behind bars and acting because she needed mental health and medical attention. Instead, she found herself in a “creepy” basement cell where the steely surroundings amplified every sound and where she was only allowed out to shower once a week. She cycled in and out of this isolation for days and weeks, she said, not sure how long she would stay there, mentally deteriorating with each stint.

Vanessa Ramos, centre, is pictured with her children Angel Mercado and Esther Roberts.

Vanessa Ramos, center, pictured with her children Angel Mercado and Esther Roberts, was serving time in solitary confinement in the Los Angeles County Jail. She is now fighting to limit the use of this practice in California prisons, jails and immigrant detention centers.

(Courtesy of Vanessa Ramos)

Her long hair became matted and she recalls hearing screams, not knowing if anyone was hurt. Her only comfort was watching a hand push her food tray through a slot in the door, proof that other people existed.

“I remember I would see the hand and I remember looking forward to it because that let me know [there] was one person,” she said. “I went to jail for stealing a car. You have no right to harm me further. The fact that it’s still happening in California in the US, how is it still happening?

Ramos, who has been out of prison for more than two decades and reunited with her child, is now fighting to pass Bill 2632, authored by Rep. Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), that would restrict the use of solitary confinement in California.

The Holden law, modeled after a New York law that went into effect a few months ago, would eliminate much of the confusion surrounding loners by limiting its use to 15 days at a time and 45 days in any 180-day period. It would also ban use for some types of people — including pregnant women (one woman claims she gave birth alone in an Alameda County jail cell a few years ago, leading to a lawsuit that ended in a $250,000 payout ), people under the age of 26 or older than 59 and people with certain disabilities or mental disorders. Facilities would also need to keep and publish records of how and why loners are used.

The legislation, which will face a major hurdle next week, would bring California more in line with United Nations rules, which prohibit indefinite solitary confinement and regard its prolonged use as a form of psychological torture.

It was “below the minimum standard of human decency,” said Kevin R. McCarthy, not to be confused with the Trumpian politician of the same name. McCarthy spent 10 years in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Penitentiary and, like Ramos, wants to end the use of solitary confinement.

“It’s not a political issue,” he said. “It’s a human rights issue. I don’t care where anyone’s political views lie. Everyone wins when they treat everyone with mutual humanity.”

A man walks along the beach

Kevin R. McCarthy at Laguna Beach. “This is not a political issue,” he said of solitary confinement. “It’s a human rights issue. I don’t care where anyone’s political views lie. Everyone wins when they treat everyone with mutual humanity.”

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Ramos and McCarthy make compelling arguments for rethinking isolation and understanding the mental trauma it causes, but California has its own argument for maintaining isolation as it is: change is too expensive.

Although I was told by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that it would not comment on pending legislation, in May I received an email from its chief of legislative affairs that was sent to the congregation. The email claims it would cost “high in the hundreds of millions to billions of dollars” to restrict the use of solitary confinement at the 31 state prisons that have such restricted facilities. For example, CDCR would need to expand exercise yards (estimated cost $256 million to $512 million) and provide “programming,” such as educational services, to those currently living in solitary confinement with little, if any, (estimated cost $775 million to create ). space for it).

That estimate is grossly exaggerated, according to Holden, the bill’s backers and an academic expert I called. They say that with an average of 4,000 people in solitary confinement at any one time across the system, reducing usage would actually result in savings of up to $300 million in reduced staffing and other efficiencies.

Keramet Reiter, a professor of criminology at UC Irvine who has written a book on solitary confinement in California, said correctional officers nationwide are using the cost argument and it “is definitely a defensive tactic to avoid implementing these types of reforms.”

But that argument has dogged Holden’s bill through the legislature and could lead to his silent death next week. On Monday, the Senate Appropriations Committee placed the bill in the suspense file because of its alleged costs.

The tension drives the bill into a mysterious and nebulous process that may result in the proposal being completed with little or no public debate. Next Thursday, the committee will either leave it in limbo — or let it expire with a whimper.

Democrats often use the suspense file as a backyard dumpster for things they’d rather not dump in plain sight, such as possible human rights violations by prisoners, always a touchy subject among voters who may have little sympathy for those who committed crimes .

But Holden’s bill should move ahead because solitary confinement can no longer be kept secret as it has been for decades, with worrying consequences.

In 2009, two Pelican Bay men in the same lone unit as McCarthy — Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell — filed a handwritten federal lawsuit alleging their treatment violated the 8th Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. At the time, more than 500 men in Pelican Bay had been held in solitary confinement for more than 10 years and 78 men had been in isolation for more than 20 years.

It took a while and a bit of legal help, but they won their Ashker case against the governor of California in 2015 and the state entered into a settlement agreement for reform. In February, a judge ordered an additional year of oversight, citing plaintiffs’ evidence that CDCR “fabricates or exaggerates rule violations” to put people in solitary confinement and continues to hold others in solitary or semi-environment who like is a “purgatory that people stay in indefinitely,” said Matthew Strugar, a lawyer on the case.

CDCR sent me its complaint after saying it could not comment on pending litigation. There she denies, among other things, to have fabricated anything.

But the stories keep coming. Every day, California inflicts incarcerated people the same kind of treatment that Ramos and McCarthy survived and that most of us on the outside are completely in the dark about. So the suspense file is not where our investigation into solitary confinement should end.

McCarthy said the state can never make up for what it went through, but it can prevent others from suffering the same thing.

All he’s asking is that we don’t “sweep it under the rug,” he said, when that’s exactly what we’re doing now. Column: California should reform use of solitary confinement

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