Well-Being Mental Health

California jails scale back solitary confinement

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Story at a glance

  • Counties in California are experimenting with reducing the usage of solitary confinement as punishment.
  • Studies show that prolonged solitary confinement can lead to and exacerbate serious mental health problems.
  • So far, several jails have dramatically reduced the number of inmates in isolation.

California prisons are issuing a new response to handling inmates in solitary confinement. Several counties, including Contra Costa, are changing their policies to reduce the use of solitary confinement measures by utilizing positive reinforcement techniques to encourage cooperative behavior and improve officer-inmate relations. 

These policy changes were catalyzed after a series of lawsuits from the nonprofit Prison Law Office that alleged jail conditions had deteriorated to inhumane conditions that were “dangerous and unconstitutional.”

One key component of the lawsuit was imposing “harsh” and “extreme” uses of solitary confinement that negatively affect people, especially those with preexisting mental health conditions. 

With a reported 25 percent of all U.S. prisons looking to reduce the need for solitary confinement, many California counties are now only using it in extreme cases, such as for inmates who frequently engage in violent behavior.

Others, like pregnant women, young offenders and individuals with mental health disorders are being banned from solitary confinement and isolation in select California counties. 

The new approaches are rooted in incentivizing good behavior with small rewards, such as extra cookies or snacks or the opportunity to watch a movie. So far, the reforms have drastically cut the amount of people in solitary confinement, with Contra Costa going from 100 inmates in solitary to just three as of December 2019. 

The American Psychological Association says that with increased time spent in solitary confinement cells — which span approximately the size of a parking space — there has been a rise in prisoner anxiety, panic, paranoia, agitation, anger and depression. 

Corroborating this is a plaintiff from one of the California jail lawsuits named Lorenzo Mays. Mays spent eight years locked in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day, which led him to experience auditory hallucinations, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, as well as a vitamin D deficiency due to a lack of sun exposure. 

Another California county, Santa Clara, is taking part in the trial as well, and is surprised with the results. Santa Clara County jails once recorded a high of 400 inmates in solitary confinement, and now boast only 40, and just for an average of two months. 

Santa Clara Sheriff Laurie Smith was initially dubious, but told AP, “It has surprised me, and I think it’s very, very good for our inmates. I think what we’re doing is correct, and I think it’s working.”