California Assembly bill aims to make prisoners in isolation eligible for early release

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The California State Assembly passed a state Senate bill Thursday that would allow prisoners in Security Housing Units, or SHUs, to be eligible for early release based on good behavior.

The bill, SB 759, would also be applied to prisoners in psychiatric services and administrative segregation units and repeals an earlier provision that made prisoners in SHUs — also known as solitary confinement — ineligible to earn credits. Credits allow for earlier releases and are gained by staying “discipline-free” and by participating in rehabilitative programs.

“The narrative accompanying the people in solitary confinement is that these people are the worst of the worst,” said Laura Magnani, assistant regional director of the American Friends Services Committee, an organization that supported the Senate bill. “Our experiences say (this narrative is) totally false.”

Prisoners can be held in SHUs for protective custody, suspected gang-affiliations or for violating prison rules and regulations and currently are unable to earn credit, thus extending their times in prison. According to Magnani, the extended times in prisons come at an unnecessary cost to taxpayers — she estimated that tens of thousands of dollars are spent per prisoner each year.

Magnani added that stays in SHUs can have deep psychological impacts on prisoners, including sleep problems, hallucination, self-mutilation and suicidal behavior. Prisoners in SHU are allowed one phone call per year and non-contact visits — visits where there is a glass partition between the prisoner and visitors.

“The ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ approach has not been effective,” said Dennis Cuevas-Romero, legislative advocate at the Hernandez Strategy Group, which worked with California Attorneys for Criminal Justice — an organization that supported the bill. “Our criminal justice system needs to be reformed to be more effective to provide folks with more programs.”

According to Magnani, the average length of time a prisoner spends in a SHU is about six years for California. Sentences highly vary, however, and more than 500 people have been held in isolation for more than 10 years in California.

The support for prisoners in SHUs grew after prisoners in Pelican Bay — one of five prisons and institutions in California with SHUs— organized two hunger strikes in 2011. A third strike in 2013 lasted 60 days and resulted in joint hearings by the Senate and Assembly committees on Public Safety. California state Senators Loni Hancock and Joel Anderson began drafting the bill in 2014 and introduced it Feb. 27, 2015.

“The people that are trying to turn around their lives and actively better themselves — those are the people that we should try to encourage to get out by rewarding good behavior and credits,” Cuevas-Romero said.

The bill will go through the California State Senate for a concurrence vote and, if passed, will move on to the governor’s desk for final consideration. If signed by the governor, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will be required to establish regulations by July 1, 2017 regarding how credits will be earned by inmates covered by the bill.

Contact Lillian Dong at [email protected].