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latest news Column: California should reform the use of solitary confinement


Why have tender feelings for those locked in solitary confinement in our prisons, jails and immigration detention centers? They must be the worst of the worst, right? The unrepentant serial killers, the gang leaders who do their business as usual behind bars, the criminals who have nothing to lose and have no problem cracking a few skulls if they get the chance. ?

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

California has a long and troubled history of using solitary confinement with questionable justification, sometimes for years at a time — one of the reasons state prisons have been under court watch for seven years. . In fact, there’s not even a standard definition for what counts as lonely in this state or even what we call it – the hole, the lockdown, the segregation – and little to keep tabs on that. is subject to it, 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 isolation while incarcerated in Los Angeles Twin Towers prison at the age of 19, convicted of stealing classic Chevys and selling drugs . She was living on the streets after being abused as a child and had given birth just weeks before being arrested.

She says she was both rehabbing from drugs and coping with the loss of her baby – not knowing where the child was – when she went behind bars and acted because that she needed mental health and medical care. Instead, she ended up in a “creepy” basement cell where the steel surroundings amplified all sounds and where she was only allowed out once a week to shower. She went in and out of this seclusion for days and weeks at a time, she said, never knowing how long she would stay there, deteriorating mentally with each pass.

Vanessa Ramos, center, shown with her children, Angel Mercado and Esther Roberts, served time in solitary confinement in the Los Angeles County Jail. She is now fighting to limit the use of the practice in California jails, jails and immigration detention centers.

(Courtesy of Vanessa Ramos)

Her long hair became tangled and she remembers hearing screams and not knowing if anyone was hurt. Her only solace was seeing a hand push her tray of food through a crack in the door, proof that other people existed.

“I remember seeing the hand, and I remember looking forward to it because it let me know [there] was a person,” she said. “I went to jail because I stole a car. You have no right to hurt me more. The fact that it’s still happening in California in the United States, how does it happen- he again?”

Ramos, out of prison for more than two decades and reunited with her child, is now fighting to pass Assembly Bill 2632, drafted by Assemblyman Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), which would limit the use of solitary confinement in California.

Holden’s bill, inspired by a New York law that took effect a few months ago, would remove much of the obscurity around solitary confinement by limiting its use to 15 days in a row and 45 days over any 180 day period. It would also prohibit its use for certain types of people – including pregnant women (a woman claims she gave birth alone in an Alameda County jail cell a few years ago, leading to a lawsuit that ended by a payment of $250,000), those under 26 or over 59, and those with certain disabilities or mental health conditions. Facilities would also be required to keep and publish records of how and why isolation was used.

The legislation, which will face a huge hurdle next week, would bring California closer to United Nations rules that prohibit indefinite solitary confinement and consider its prolonged use a form of psychological torture.

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

“It’s not a political question,” he said. “It’s a matter of human rights. I don’t care where someone’s political views lie. Everyone wins by treating everyone with reciprocal humanity.

latest news Column: California should reform the use of solitary confinement

Kevin R. McCarthy at Laguna Beach. “It’s not a political issue,” he said of solitary confinement. “It’s a matter of human rights. I don’t care where someone’s political views lie. Everyone wins by treating everyone with reciprocal humanity.

(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Ramos and McCarthy make powerful arguments for reconsidering isolation and understanding the mental trauma it causes, but California has its own argument for remaining lonely as it is: change costs too much.

Although the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation told me it doesn’t comment on pending legislation, I did get an email its chief of legislative affairs sent to the Assembly in May. The email claims it would cost “hundreds of millions to billions of dollars” to reduce the use of solitary confinement in the 31 state prisons that have such restricted facilities. The CDCR should, for example, expand the exercise yards (estimated cost between $256 and $512 million) and provide “programs” such as education services to isolated people who currently receive little, if any ( estimated cost of $775 million to create space for it).

That estimate is grossly exaggerated, according to Holden, the bill’s supporters and an academic expert I called. They say that with an average of 4,000 people in isolation in the system at a time, reducing its use would actually save up to $300 million in reduced staffing and other efficiencies.

Keramet Reiter, a UC Irvine criminology professor who wrote a book on solitary confinement in California, said corrections officials nationwide are rolling out the cost argument and that “it’s definitely a defensive tactic to avoid implementing these types of reforms”.

But that argument got Holden’s bill through the Legislature and could lead to its quiet death next week. On Monday, the Senate Appropriations Committee placed the bill in the “pending file” because of its alleged cost.

The suspense pushes the bill through a secretive and nebulous process that can lead to the death of the proposal with little or no public debate. Next Thursday, the committee will either let it out of suspense – or let it expire with a groan.

Democrats often use the holding file as a dumpster for things they’d rather not throw out in plain sight, like potential prisoner human rights abuses, always a complicated topic with voters. who may have little sympathy for those who have committed crimes.

But Holden’s bill should go ahead because solitary confinement cannot continue to be shrouded in secrecy as it has been for decades, with disturbing results.

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

It took time and a little legal help, but they won their Ashker case against the governor of California in 2015 and the state reached a settlement agreement for the reforms. In February, a judge ordered another year of surveillance, citing plaintiffs’ evidence that the CDCR “fabricates or exaggerates rule violations” to put people in solitary confinement, and continues to keep others in solitary confinement or in a setting. intermediary that looks like a “purgatory where people stay for an indefinite period,” said Matthew Strugar, a lawyer handling the case.

CDCR sent me his appeal after saying he could not comment on the ongoing litigation. There, among other arguments, he denies having fabricated anything.

But the stories keep coming. Every day, California inflicts the same kind of treatment on incarcerated people that Ramos and McCarthy survived and of which most of us on the outside are completely in the dark. The holding file is therefore not where our discussion of solitary confinement should end.

McCarthy said the state can never fix what he went through, but it can prevent others from suffering the same way.

All he’s asking is that we don’t “slide him under the rug,” he said, even though that’s exactly where he is right now.

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