California legislators are weighing a major change to the state’s criminal justice system: banning long-term solitary confinement. The California Mandela Act is part of a nationwide push to curb widespread use of solitary confinement amid concerns about the mental health ramifications and apparent racial inequity in its use, the New York Times reports. “Solitary confinement is torture,” said Hamid Yazdan Panah of Immigrant Defense Advocates, which supports the bill. “If we a long time ago accepted that torture is unacceptable in our jails and prisons, then we really have to take this issue seriously.” The bill would prohibit solitary confinement for pregnant women, those younger than 26, those older than 59, and people with certain disabilities or mental health disorders. The approach, also called punitive segregation, would apply to jails, prisons and detention facilities in the state.
For everyone else, solitary would be limited to 15 consecutive days and 45 days in any 180-day period. Staff workers would also periodically check on the confined person and offer out-of-cell programming for at least four hours a day. In California, 4,000 people are in solitary confinement at any given time, and the proposed changes would lead to a 70 percent reduction in that number. “We’re housing individuals in a cell the size of a parking stall, with no real outlet, with no interaction with other people for extended periods of time,” said Assemblyman Chris Holden. “It’s just unacceptable.” Holden’s bill is modeled after one in New York that went into effect this year after a nearly decade-long legislative battle. Colorado, New Jersey, New Mexico and at least 10 other states have also limited or banned punitive segregation, despite objections from corrections officials who argue that such rollbacks will make prisons and jails less safe.