Cal­i­for­nia jails use kinder ap­proach to iso­la­tion cells

New poli­cies may one day be used on a na­tional scale

Orlando Sentinel - - NATION & WORLD - By Don Thomp­son

SACRA­MENTO, Calif. — 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 into the cell and drag him out.

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

So 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 nu­mer­ous smaller ju­ris­dic­tions are look­ing for ways to re­duce the use of soli­tary con­fine­ment, ac­cord­ing to 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 their sen­tences in state pris­ons. The state in 2011 be­gan send­ing less se­ri­ous of­fend­ers to lo­cal jails for years at a time to ease crowd­ing in state pen­i­ten­tiaries.

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.

Con­tra Costa started 2019 with about 100 peo­ple in soli­tary, most for more than a year. It had just three in iso­la­tion cells by December, after of­fi­cials be­gan us­ing the new ap­proach.

Sacra­mento County also is fol­low­ing the pol­icy pi­o­neered by Santa Clara County, while Fresno County is con­sid­er­ing it. Among other things, it en­cour­ages the use of low­cost in­cen­tives to re­ward good be­hav­ior, like the op­por­tu­nity to lis­ten to the ra­dio, watch a movie or get an ex­tra snack.

Sacra­mento County has cut its iso­lated pop­u­la­tion roughly in half, to about 60 in­mates, said Lt. Alex McCamy: “It’s a lim­ited time frame and a lim­ited group, but the ini­tial im­pres­sion is pos­i­tive.”

Rick Raemisch, who re­stricted the use of soli­tary con­fine­ment when he headed Colorado’s prison sys­tem, said the vi­o­lent, tense, dirty con­di­tions in Santa Clara County’s jail im­proved markedly with the new pol­icy.

“Think of your­self be­ing in a cell the size of a park­ing space for 23 hours a day,” said Raemisch, who con­sulted with county of­fi­cials.

“At a min­i­mum you’re go­ing to get an­gry, and when you get an­gry you’re go­ing to fight back.”

In­mates na­tion­wide are most of­ten seg­re­gated for non­vi­o­lent “nui­sance in­frac­tions” like smok­ing, curs­ing, dis­obey­ing or­ders or hav­ing unau­tho­rized items from the com­mis­sary, said the Vera In­sti­tute’s Sara Sul­li­van.

Santa Clara County once locked a woman in soli­tary con­fine­ment for 2 1⁄2 years for talk­ing back to cor­rec­tional of­ficers or yelling and bang­ing on her cell door with other de­tainees, ac­cord­ing to Specter’s law­suit.

The Cal­i­for­nia coun­ties’ new pol­icy of re­strict­ing its use to con­tin­ued vi­o­lent be­hav­ior could be seen as a na­tional pi­lot pro­gram, Sul­li­van said.

New Jersey’s Mid­dle­sex County Adult Correction Cen­ter has low­ered the num­ber of iso­lated in­mates and the time they spend there, she said, but with a dif­fer­ent ap­proach that lets in­mates out of their cells more fre­quently.

The Ham­p­den County Cor­rec­tional Cen­ter in Mas­sachusetts in­creased its use of al­ter­na­tive sanc­tions and pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment. And Cook County, Illi­nois, no longer keeps trou­ble­some in­mates in iso­la­tion, al­low­ing them to reg­u­larly spend time with about a half-dozen other in­mates.

“There’s been a decades­long ef­fort to re­form soli­tary, es­pe­cially in pris­ons. But what we haven’t seen is a paired re­form ef­fort for jails,” said Amy Fet­tig, di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­erty Union’s Stop Soli­tary cam­paign. “In Santa Clara what we’re see­ing is an at­tempt to re­form the whole process.”

BEN MARGOT/AP

Sher­iff Lau­rie Smith of Santa Clara County, Calif., looks in­side a soli­tary con­fine­ment cell. The jail worked to re­duce the num­ber of in­mates in iso­la­tion from 400 to 26.

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