CALIFORNIA, USA — California would be the first U.S. state to ban solitary confinement in private civil detention centers used for immigrants who are under threat of deportation, under a bill that advanced Tuesday.
But the measure carries a huge projected price tag by also including the state's prisons and jails, though supporters contest the cost estimates and say it could actually save money.
The most populous state would be the latest to restrict segregated confinement in prisons and jails, following in the footsteps of other states including Colorado and New York. A Yale Law School study last week estimated that at least 41,000 prisoners in the United States were held in isolation last year, half as many as in 2014.
The measures in other states did not cover immigration detention facilities.
California's proposal would bar solo confinement for more than 15 consecutive days or more than 45 days in a six-month period. It would ban it entirely for pregnant women, people with mental or physical disabilities, or if they are age 25 and younger or 60 and older.
Even while in segregation, facilities would be required to let people out of their cells for at least four hours a day for programs, not including time spent on housekeeping or a job.
The Senate approved the bill Monday, 23-12, and the Assembly sent it to Gov. Gavin Newsom Tuesday on a 41-16 vote.
Democratic Assemblyman Chris Holden patterned his bill on New York's law, but included private detention facilities, including those holding immigrants.
In California, more than 90% of immigrants facing potential deportation are held in for-profit detention facilities that would be affected by the bill, according to Immigrant Defense Advocates, one of the bill's co-sponsors.
Holden's office cited a lawsuit last year by a detainee who sued the for-profit operator of an immigration facility alleging that he was held in solitary for 15 months, and a 74-year-old Korean man who took his own life in 2020 after being held in solitary during the coronavirus pandemic.
However, his bill includes an exception for using isolation under certain circumstances to treat and protect against the spread of communicable disease.
California has for several years attempted to both regulate and outlaw privately operated centers in the state, though its attempt to ban them is being challenged in the courts.
Holden said his bill would align California with recommendations from both the National Commission on Correctional Health Care in 2016 and the United Nations General Assembly's ratification in 2015 of the Nelson Mandela Rules banning segregation longer than 15 days.
The California State Sheriffs' Association, whose members run the state's jails, said the bill's various restrictions would "practically eliminate any use of segregated confinement, including when such placement is necessary for the safety of the facility or individual inmates themselves."
The state corrections department calculated that complying would cost the state nearly $1.3 billion in one-time costs to expand exercise yards and programming space, and an additional $200 million a year for more correctional officers.
Holden's office by contrast says the bill could save the state $60 million to $300 million a year, citing a report from Immigrant Defense Advocates.
He contends that corrections officials could reuse existing space for education and job training as envisioned by his bill, instead of constructing costly new buildings to provide programs.
California already limited what once was widespread use of isolation wards in its state prisons under a 2015 legal settlement.
Before then, more than 1,500 inmates were often kept in solitary confinement, and more than 500 had been held in a special unit at notorious Pelican Bay State Prison for more than a decade. Attorneys representing inmates contend that corrections officials continue to violate that settlement, and a federal judge has kept the case open for continued oversight after finding the state was violating inmates' due process rights.