By Laurel Spear
SACRAMENTO, CA — On Sept. 29, 2022, Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed Assembly Bill 2632. If passed, this bill would have limited solitary confinement to 15 consecutive days and no more than 45 out of 180 days in prisons, jails, and immigration detention facilities. The so-called California Mandela Act, named after famous South African activist Nelson Mandela, would completely ban solitary confinement for vulnerable groups including anyone under the age of 26 or older than 59. It would also ban the practice for people who are pregnant, recently had a baby or miscarriage, and individuals who suffer from mental or physical disabilities.
The movement to limit solitary confinement has grown in recent years, with other states enacting similar legislation to limit the practice. Just last year, New York passed legislation that would limit the use of solitary to 15 consecutive days in prisons and jails. If AB 2632 had passed, California would be the first state to include immigrant detention centers, making it the nation’s most comprehensive reform to solitary confinement.
In his statement on Sept. 29, 2022, Governor Gavin Newsom agreed with proponents of AB 2632 that “segregated confinement is ripe for reform in the United States.” Yet he continued to explain the proposed bill was “overly broad and [contained] exclusions that could risk the safety of both the staff and incarcerated population.” The statement goes on to cite concerns that the bill prevents “the placement of large portions of the incarcerated population in segregated housing—even if such a placement is to protect the safety of all incarcerated individuals” and that “the restrictions in this bill could interrupt the rehabilitation efforts of other incarcerated people and the staff at these facilities.”
The proposed legislation is based on a UN Special Rapporteur who, in 2015, called for the prohibition of solitary and stated that any more than 15 consecutive days in solitary confinement amounted to torture. This was based on the Nelson Mandela Rules on the minimum treatment of prisoners, which ensure respect for prisoners’ dignity and humanity and prohibit torture and mistreatment.
Research by the Vera Institute of Justice conducted over 150 years illustrates that prolonged periods of isolation are not only inhumane but also ineffective at rehabilitation. The Vera Institute found the harmful effects of solitary include increased depression, anxiety, hypersensitivity, psychosis, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even suicide—as well as physical effects such as a higher risk of strokes, heart attacks, and premature death.
AB 2632 passed through the California legislature mostly on party lines, with Republicans citing high expenses as their reason for voting against it. The legislation is projected to cost $1.3 billion upfront since prison yards would need to be renovated to accommodate people being released from solitary. After being enacted, each year the proposed bill would cost another $200 million to pay for increased staffing.
Supporters of AB 2632 say that the bill would actually lower prison costs because solitary confinement requires more staffing than regular prison cells. As a report by the Berkeley Underground Scholars explained, limiting solitary would save California an estimated $60-$300 million annually because fewer prison/jail staff would be necessary.
Opponents of the bill such as law enforcement agencies maintain that solitary confinement is a key tool used by prisons and jails to isolate dangerous criminals and to act as a deterrent for unacceptable behavior. Law enforcement agencies urged Newsom to veto the bill stating that prison and jail officials should decide when solitary is necessary, not legislators.
AB 2632 was in part inspired by a recent case where Choung Woong Ahn, a 74-year-old Korean immigrant, died by suicide while in solitary confinement. Ahn was being held in an immigrant detention center in California, which led to the addition of immigrant detention centers in AB 2632.
Currently, there are few regulations on the practice of solitary confinement in California. The overarching definition means spending 22 to 23 hours in a single cell with no meaningful social interaction. Further than that, the definition of solitary is left up to prison and jail officials. One concern cited against the proposed bill is that facilities can call solitary confinement by different names in order to continue the practice for extended periods. Calling solitary by different names is a method already practiced in California with names such as restricted housing, protective custody, and special housing frequently used instead of solitary confinement. This leads to difficulty in getting specific numbers on how many prisoners are held in solitary across the state. In California, there are 58 distinct counties all with their own definitions of solitary and even within counties, particular facilities may have separate names or descriptions for solitary.
To mitigate difficulties in understanding the correct number of people in solitary across California, AB 2632 would have created a statewide definition of solitary that would apply in jails, prisons, and immigrant detention centers. The legislation would also have required more extensive documentation of facilities’ use of solitary, to get a better understanding of how often it is used across the state.
Laurel is currently a junior at UC Berkeley studying Political Science with an emphasis on International Relations. She is from Los Angeles and outside of school, she enjoys cooking, snowboarding, painting, and going to concerts.