Bill Watch

New Laws Part 1: Conditions Inside Prisons and Jails

Pelican Bay State Prison, via Inside CDCR, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

During the first two weeks of October, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed and rejected the last of hundreds of bills state legislators sent to his desk.

Earlier this month, we shared a roundup of justice bills that failed in the Senate and Assembly, but that may be revived in 2024. 

Today, and over the next two weeks, we’ll look at some of the noteworthy bills Newsom signed — or vetoed — starting with bills that address conditions inside California’s prisons and jails.

The first bill, AB 353, addresses what bill author Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) says are “inhumane and cruel” conditions inside prisons regarding personal hygiene. 

The bill will require incarcerated people be allowed to shower at least every other day. When a shower is denied, carceral staff will have to document the circumstances and reason behind the decision.  

“Incarcerated people have reportedly missed their chance to shower due to participation in other programming, medical appointments, or even ‘recreation’ time,” according to Initiate Justice, one of the bill’s sponsors. “As a result, incarcerated individuals can go up to a week without taking a shower, essentially forced to sit in the stench of their body odor and musty clothes.”

People in lockup — and their loved ones — also often face steep commissary prices for food, hygiene supplies, and other essentials. 

“Canteen items are marked up an average of 65%, but can exceed 200% of what the average consumer would pay at their local store,” according to Senator Josh Becker (D-Menlo Park). “Given wages for most incarcerated people range between eight and thirty-seven cents an hour, canteen purchases already take an exorbitant amount of their income. Markups can push these items out of reach entirely.”

The discrepancy between commissary prices and prison wages also mean that family members, already deeply burdened by the costs of incarceration and loss of their loved one’s income, are usually the ones on the hook for these purchases.

“Canteen markups economically drain over $30 million each year from impacted families, and lead to families having to make tough decisions over whether to provide food for their incarcerated loved one or cover their own basic needs,” Becker wrote.

A newly passed bill, SB 474, will address the issue by limiting canteen markups to a maximum of 35% over the price paid to vendors. 

The bill originally capped the markup at 10%, but amendments raised the limit to 35% above vendor pricing. The bill also sunsets on January 1, 2028, at which point, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will be required to “fix the sale prices of articles offered for sale at the canteen at amounts that will, as far as possible, render each canteen self-supporting.”

Newsom approved two bills authored in response to jail deaths in San Diego, Los Angeles, Riverside, and Sacramento Counties. 

The first bill, SB 519, by Senator Toni G. Atkins (D-San Diego), will require Gov. Newsom to appoint an official to review all in-custody deaths across the state. 

“An alarming increase in death incidents has occurred in San Diego County in the last three years, with 18 in custody deaths in 2021 and 20 deaths in 2022,” Sen. Atkins wrote. “This year already 11 inmates have died in-custody in San Diego County facilities.”

In LA County, more than 30 in-custody deaths have been reported in 2023, so far. At least one jail death was not even reported by the LA County Sheriff’s Department. And families often receive little information about the circumstances surrounding their loved ones’ deaths.

In addition to hiring someone to conduct independent in-custody death reviews at the state-level, SB 519 also requires sheriff’s department records related to jail deaths to be available to the public, although the departments will be able to redact information.

A related bill, AB 268, by Assemblymember Dr. Akilah Weber (D-San Diego), adds two seats to the Board of State and Community Corrections, which oversees jails in California’s 58 counties. The two new seats will be filled by medical and mental health professionals.

Finally, AB 360, by Assemblymember Mike Gipson, bans medical examiners from using the term “excited delirium” as a medical diagnosis or cause of death, and prohibits law enforcement officers from using the term to describe someone in an incident report.

“This issue was brought to my attention through very tragic circumstances,  said Asm. Gipson. “In 2020, Angelo Quinto, a Navy Veteran dealing with a mental health crisis, stopped breathing while two police officers knelt on his back and neck. Mr. Quinto’s official cause of death was determined to be excited delirium.” 

The term, the bill author says, is frequently used to explain the deaths of people of color in custody, and was first used to justify the sudden deaths of 32 Black women in custody in 1985.

“Excited delirium is not a reliable, independent medical or psychiatric diagnosis,” Gipson wrote. “There are no diagnostic guidelines, and it is not recognized in the DSM- 5, which is the main diagnosis guide for mental health providers.” 

The term is not recognized as a diagnosis by the American Medical Association or the American Psychiatric Association. “The only place where this term is continuously used is to describe deaths that occur in police custody,” said Gipson.


  • Yes the prices of commissary is so expensive and disgusting on the cost. What gets me so mad is the food they give them and the portions. So the inmates have to buy the commissary. The schools get better food. They treat these women and men like if they were animals. Let’s see if Governor Newsom would eat the food they get. Look at the list of the prices of the food and hygiene. Even Orange County have been having their death of inmates too.

  • Please! Just do the job your hired to do & do it to the best of your ability! (I pray too alot for everyone in the whole, wide, world!)

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