Thursday, December 5, 2013

Solitary Confinement: What Could the Legislature Do?

Two months have passed since the joint legislative hearing held by the California Senate and Assembly Public Safety committees. At the hearing, lawmakers heard testimony from CDCR personnel, academics, and families of  SHU inmates.

At the hearing, several of the lawmakers, especially Tom Ammiano, Loni Hancock, and Nancy Skinner spoke up about their discomfort with SHU conditions. If this is truly the zeitgeist in the legislature, what can they do to modify the conditions?

It is highly unrealistic that California will do away with solitary confinement altogether. Short of extreme creativity, it's hard to repurpose a maximum-security facility. Nor is it realistic to express political consensus that the institution is unnecessary. But there are various ways to mitigate our use of SHU units. Many of these are detailed in Confronting Confinement, a 2006 report by the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons. In the California case, the legislature could decide to:

1. Limit long-term solitary confinement to, say, ten years.
2. Monitor the entrance to solitary confinement. One possibility would be to limit solitary to punishment for infractions, but if the legislature doesn't want to go that far, they could focus on demanding more evidence of danger before admitting someone to solitary confinement.
3. Monitor the exit from solitary confinement. The legislature could decide to abolish the debriefing process, or it could call for modifications, such as improving the criteria for establishing gang status.
4. Limit disciplinary measures. The legislature could flat-out forbid collective punishment, especially when race based.
5. Make a decision about double-bunking. I confess this one trumps me as well. Being locked up alone in a cell versus sharing it, in very close quarters, with a roommate not of one's choosing? This could be what Keramet Reiter once referred to as "differently horrible."
6. Add human contact, such as work with others or joint yard time.
7. Increase contact with the outside, including letters and visits.
8. Increase access to books and educational opportunities.
9. Set up parameters for safe and effective health care.
10. Seriously examine the quality of food and consider guidelines and improvements.
11. Take on the quality of staff training.

We will have to wait and see how things shape up.