Analysis: California taxpayers foot high costs of long-term solitary confinement

California taxpayers are paying hundreds of millions of dollar every year to hold more than 4,000 prisoners in solitary confinement even though state officials are not able to provide data to support their claims that prolonged isolation is effective in reducing prison gangs violence.

Read more: CA prisoners released from solitary confinement struggle to re-integrate in community

The estimated cost of holding an inmate in a security housing unit (SHU) is about $70,000 per year, about $15,000 to $20,000 more than incarcerating an inmate in general population. The average SHU stay for an inmate is nearly 4 years, although 60% of the SHU inmates are serving indefinite terms in solitary confinement because they have been “validated” as gang members or “associates”.

These figures suggest that California taxpayers could be footing more than $283 million to keep inmates in the SHU every year. As pointed out by Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, “Incarceration is expensive; solitary confinement is by far the most expensive form of incarceration.”

However, the true cost of solitary confinement is likely to be much more given that SHU inmates have significantly higher recidivism rates than inmates who serve all their time in the prison’s general population. Nearly 70% of SHU inmates are returned to prison within 3 years of their release, about 5% higher than recidivism rate of general population inmates. (The estimated cost of incarcerating an inmate in general population is about $49,000 a year.)

At a recent hearing before the joint Assembly and Senate public safety committee, lawmakers and experts questioned the efficacy of California’s solitary confinement policies and whether the high costs of prolonged isolation are justifiable.

Read more: CDCR official couldn’t provide data to back up claim of SHU efficacy in reducing prison gang violence

Although prison officials have often claimed that solitary confinement is needed to protect other prisoners and the public from the “worst of the worst” criminals, officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation were not able to provide data to validate such claim. Not only that, the state’s own statistics appear to undermine the assertion that only the “worst of the worst” are being held in the SHU, often for years or even decades.

According to Inspector General Robert Barton, 65% of the SHU inmates reevaluated under CDCR’s pilot Security Threat Group program have been recommended for release from solitary confinement.

“In terms of this question of who is in the SHU and why, what we often hear is that it’s the worst of the worst prisoners. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence behind this claim and less evidence that there are 4,000 or more of the worst of the worst prisoners,” said Keramet Reiter, Associate Professor of Criminology at UC Irvine.

Read more: Experts say solitary confinement is “over-used” in California

Reiter pointed out that the rate of homicides in California’s prison system is “less than 1 homicide per 100,000 prisoners” today compared to the high of 18 per 100,000 prisoners in the 1970s.

“Given this evidence about how low rates of homicides have been in the prison system over the last 4 years, it suggested that maybe there aren’t 4,000 worst of the worst prisoners,” said Reiter.

Both Reiter and Winter testified that solitary confinement is “over-used” in California, which raises incarceration costs and risks to public safety.

Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner said the criteria for sending an inmate to the SHU needs to be refined, noting that CDCR doesn’t appear to be using solitary confinement only as a last resort.

“I raise this not only because of a concern I have around the impacts of prisoners who are in SHU but also the cost to us,” said Skinner, who chairs the Assembly budget committee. “We have to do everything we can to get our costs of incarceration down and increasing numbers of people in SHU is not getting our costs down.”

Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Oakland), chair of the Senate public safety committee, suggested that the savings from the reductions in the number of inmates in solitary confinement could be re-invested in parole and probation programs that can help reduce recidivism and improve public safety.


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