California Jails Dramatically Cut Solitary Confinement After Lawsuit

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Harlem, NY protest against solitary confinement. Photo by Felton Davis via Flickr

An inmate in solitary confinement at a California jail was refusing to leave his cell. The jailers’ usual response: Send an “extraction team” of corrections officers to burst in and drag him out.

Not in Contra Costa County, one of three in the state using a kinder, gentler approach in response to inmate lawsuits, a policy change experts say could be a national model for reducing the use of isolation cells, reports the Associated Press.

The inmate was asked: “What if we gave you a couple extra cookies and another sandwich? Would you move?” recalled Don Specter, the nonprofit Prison Law Office director who negotiated the new policies. “He said yes. … They were like, ‘Wow.’ ”

More than a quarter of U.S. states and many smaller jurisdictions are looking for ways to reduce the use of solitary confinement, says the Vera Institute of Justice, which encourages alternatives to a practice behavioral experts say is dehumanizing and can worsen mental illness.

The new policies in California came after Specter’s firm sued seven of California’s 58 counties, alleging that conditions had grown inhumane as jails absorbed inmates who previously would have served sentences in state prisons.

Some jurisdictions nationwide are banning isolation for young offenders, pregnant women or those with mental health diagnoses. The California counties’ approach of generally limiting it to those who engage in continued violent behavior has dramatically reduced the number of inmates in isolation and the length of time they stay there.

Additional Reading: Solitary Confinement at ‘Tipping Point’ Experts Say, The Crime Report, April 27, 2018.


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