CALIFORNIA LEGISLATORS HEAR TESTIMONY ON SOLITARY CONFINEMENT
In a meeting between the California Senate and Assembly public safety committees on Wednesday, lawmakers heard testimony from CDCR officials, inmate advocates, and a former Security Housing Units (SHU) resident on the humaneness and practicality of solitary confinement in state prison. The hearing, hosted by State Senator Loni Hancock and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, came after a historic 59-day state-wide prisoner hunger strike over SHU conditions and protocol, among other things.
(For some of the backstory, go here.)
KPCC’s Rina Palta has the story. Here’s a clip:
“I wonder if there’s been any reduction in gang membership as a result of putting so many people in SHU,” Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner said to officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
“I don’t know that that’s the case at all,” said CDCR Deputy Director Michael Stainer. Stainer said CDCR lacked the resources to keep real data that would track the results of policies like the SHU.
Stainer also said it’s too early to tell whether a policy change that’s granted the release of about 343 SHU inmates to the general prison population so far has had any negative effects on prison safety.
“We need this informational gathering system to judge whether or not these policies are effective,” Stainer said.
Stainer estimated housing an inmate in a SHU costs about $15,000-$20,000 more per year than housing an inmate in a high-security general population yard.
Lawmakers also questioned prison officials about conditions inside the SHUs — whether inmate complaints about food are justified, whether inmates are allotted visitations and whether mentally-ill inmates can participate in group therapy sessions.
CDCR Deputy Director Kelly Harrington explained that inmates participate in group therapy while in individual, cage-like “treatment modules.” Similarly, SHU inmates in some prisons, like Corcoran, exercise in outdoor cages.
“I’ve got to say this,” Ammiano said. “There’s just so many comparisons to a zoo. Feeding terms, ‘treatment modules.’ I don’t know, we’ve got to do something about that.”
California Congressional Representatives Tony Cardenas and Karen Bass sent a letter Wednesday before the hearing, cheering on the state Senators and Assemblymen and stressing the importance of these hearings. Here’s a clip from the letter, which WitnessLA obtained:
We are very pleased to hear that you will be holding a Joint Hearing in the Assembly and Senate Public Safety Committees on the conditions in California prisons. As leaders in California’s state legislative bodies, you have an important platform with which you can review these pressing issues and encourage changes to our correctional system that promote effective rehabilitation of California’s prison population.
We have serious concerns with the solitary confinement of inmates, often for indefinite periods of time. Beyond the question of whether the physical and social isolation of individuals in a cell for 22-24 hours per day qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment, it has been recognized as leading to or intensifying mental illness among inmates. In fact, individuals in solitary confinement attempt suicide at higher rates than those who are in the general population, further showing that this practice is counterproductive to rehabilitation efforts.
BILL TO INCREASE EX-INMATES’ ACCESS TO MEDI-CAL
AB 720, a bill still awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s deliberation, would suspend inmates’ Medi-Cal while they are behind bars, rather than the terminating their coverage as current law dictates. It would also allow inmates to enroll in Medi-Cal that will kick in upon their release.
An LA Times editorial calling on Gov. Brown to sign AB 720, says the bill would help reduce gaps in medical care for California’s mentally ill, lower recidivism rates, and save counties money.
Here are some clips from the editorial:
When people leave jail without medical coverage, their ailments often go untreated and they wind up in the emergency room with more expensive, acute problems. The ultimate cost usually ends up being covered by taxpayers in any case because hospitals can sign them up for Medi-Cal retroactively. What’s more, former jail inmates who suffer from mental health issues and substance-abuse problems but who don’t receive treatment are more likely to end up back in jail, according to studies of jail populations in Florida and Washington.
The changes are sensible and will increase the continuity of care while reducing recidivism. Currently, many people fail to re-enroll in Medi-Cal when they are released from jail, often because they are too ill, mentally or physically, to navigate the process.
The bill could also help counties save money by providing local law enforcement agencies greater flexibility in managing their jail populations, especially those inmates who are mentally ill but not considered dangerous. In L.A. County, an estimated 15% of inmates suffer from some form of mental illness, and taxpayers spend about $160 a day to house them — nearly twice the cost of housing other inmates. If more of those inmates were covered, the county might be able to release them and divert them to more effective and less costly programs.
REFORM PACKAGE TO INCREASE FOSTER AND HOMELESS YOUTHS’ ACCESS TO COLLEGE
Before the present government shutdown, the Senate Committee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions (HELP) held the first in a set of hearings on higher education.
Foster care journalist/advocate Daniel Heimpel, in his publication, The Chronicle of Social Change, explains how the hearings will provide a podium for foster child advocates to push a reform package to make attending college more feasible for foster and homeless youth.
Here’s a clip from Heimpel’s story:
While yet to be scheduled, subsequent hearings will cover issues such as college affordability, student access and financial aid, and will influence the re-authorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA), which governs the disbursement of federal monies to universities and student assistance programs.
“We need all hands on deck when it comes to these young people,” said Barbara Duffield, policy director at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
Duffield, who has already corralled 17 national groups including the Alliance for Children and Families and the National Alliance to End Homelessness, is advocating for reform package that would improve outcomes for foster and homeless youth by removing barriers to financial aid, making college more affordable and building up supports for college retention.
One of the recommendations calls for federal programs to better identify, recruit and prepare homeless and foster students for college. This would entail amending the TRIO and GEAR-UP programs — which are both administered by the Department of Education and aim to improve college access and retention of disadvantaged and first generation students — to explicitly include students in foster care and those who are homeless.
“I have certainly heard many [foster] youth say that they didn’t even know college was a possibility,” said Jessica Feierman, a supervising attorney at the Juvenile Law Center, one of the advocacy groups supporting the recommendations. “Unless someone reaches out, they often won’t know they have this option. Including these provisions is extremely valuable.”
Even in a state like California, which is often pointed to as a leader in helping foster youth through high school and onto college, the majority of students in foster care remain woefully underprepared for college.
Only 45 percent will graduate from high school compared to 79 percent of the general student population, according to a report released in May. While three quarters of foster youth in one California survey reported the goal of attending college, national studies have shown that only 3-11 percent will ever receive a bachelor’s degree.
LA COUNTY SUPES VOTE TO PUMP $90M INTO JAILS
On Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved $89.8M three-year jail fund to carry out many of the reforms recommended by the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence in September 2012. (We would still sure like to see a very rigorous forensic audit done on the Sheriff’s Dept., in general, and the custody division, specifically, but that’s just us.)
The LA Times’ Abby Sewell has the story. Here’s a clip:
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has faced federal scrutiny and a barrage of lawsuits over allegations that there has been a pattern of mistreatment of inmates by jailers and deputies.
The money approved Tuesday will go to hire 130 staff members, including more supervisors in the jails, lieutenants to oversee use-of-force investigations, internal affairs and training staff, and to install more cameras to capture the actions of inmates and guards.
Separately, the board is moving to hire an inspector general for the Sheriff’s Department as recommended by the jail violence commission. Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina have also proposed setting up a permanent citizens’ oversight commission, but the proposal has so far failed to get support from the rest of the board.
And by the way, on Wednesday, LA County Superior Court Judge Michelle Rosenblatt blocked an attempt by the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs to prevent the LA Times from publishing LASD deputies’ background screening files. (Read about the decision here.)