Alternatives to long-term solitary confinement in California

WTF Steven Czifra

California should enact immediate reforms to its solitary confinement practices, which are inflicting unnecessary psychological and physical harm on inmates and costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollar per year with little evidence that prolonged isolation reduces prison violence.

Read more: CDCR lacks data to back up claim of SHU efficacy in reducing prison gang violence

Inmates held in security housing units (SHU) spend about 22 to 23 hours a day alone in an 8 feet by 10 feet cell with little or no natural light, are banned from contact visits with their families, and are subject to severe restrictions in their communications as well as access to education and rehabilitative programs.

Many inmates who’ve spent years in isolation in such harsh conditions develop mental illnesses that are not adequately treated, and as a result, inmates who spent time in solitary confinement often have a tough time reintegrating into the community once they are released. The recidivism rate for SHU inmates – 69% – is about 5% higher than that of prisoners who served time only in the general population units.

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

Although it costs California taxpayers approximately $70,000 a year to hold a single inmate in the SHU, state prison officials were not able to present any data to support claims that prolonged solitary confinement has been effective in reducing prison gang memberships or improving public safety.

“It’s not working and we’re harming people,” said Steven Czifra, a student at UC Berkeley who served 4 years in the SHU. “What’s happening is indefensible.”

At a recent hearing before the joint Assembly and Senate public safety committee, Czifra, UC Irvine criminology professor Keramet Reiter, and ACLU’s Margaret Winter outlined five reforms that can be immediately implemented by the state to improve conditions in the SHU and reduce the long-term human and fiscal costs inflicted by long-term solitary confinement.

Many of the reforms they proposed do not compromise prison security nor do they necessarily add more to the state’s costs compared to the status quo.

Read more: Spotlight: Solitary Confinement in California

The first reform measure they proposed is to set a time limit on solitary confinement.

About 60% of the 4,000 plus inmates currently in the SHU are serving indeterminate terms in solitary confinement. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture in 2011 said that solitary confinement terms lasting more than 14 consecutive days amounts to torture given the immense pain and mental harm extreme isolation inflicts on inmates.

“I had a date. So I had hope. I knew I was getting out. I knew I was going to get out so I had something to work towards,” said Czifra. “I think we need to give these people hope. Give them light at the end of the tunnel. Put an absolute cap.”

He added, “The absence of hope is despair. So what does a person in despair do for themselves, to care for themselves, you know? And how long can you keep that up?”

Another alternative to sending inmates to solitary confinement is to take away their work privileges for a certain period of time.

The second reform proposed is to scale back some of the sensory deprivations imposed and to allow inmates in solitary confinement more access to confidential counseling, education, and communications with their families.

“Even when there is a compelling security need for physical separation, that’s no justification for extreme social isolation, sensory deprivation, and enforced idleness,” said Winter. “Prisoners requiring long-term physical separation from others should have meaningful access to telephone calls, letters, reading materials, TV, radio and in-cell programming. And they should have access to confidential counseling with mental health clinicians – not cell-front but confidential. They should recreate alongside other prisoners even if they have to be confined to separate adjacent exercise yards.”

Winter said she has seen prisoners who are considered “the worst of the worst” playing checkers while shackled together.

“They’re playing games. They are able to talk to each other. Sometimes people can be on the yard together, for example, in parallel yards so that they can communicate with each other,” Winter said. “What you need to do is to provide conditions that allow that person to have a life instead of going around the bend from total sensory deprivation, monotony, and isolation. There should be ways to be able to have congregate activities with others and it depends on the individual.”

Czifra also said inmates in solitary confinement should be granted phone calls and contact visits with their families.

“We are defined by this idea of human beings. We are a group, and we need people and the one thing that makes us people is other people,” said Czifra.

The third reform proposed is to conduct meaningful reviews of the inmates in the SHU to ensure that they are held in solitary confinement for the shortest amount of time necessary.

“Be sure by regular review and by looking at the right data that the person is in current and ongoing danger such that you have to protect others, that there has to be physical separation,” said Winter.

Winter stressed that solitary confinement should only be used as a last resort and for as short a time as possible for “prisoners who pose a current, serious threat to the safety of others”.

She emphasized that the isolated inmate’s status and progress should be meaningfully reviewed by a classification team and mental health professionals.

“He might not be the same person in 5 years that he was when he did something terrible that made him seem like a danger to others. You then can incrementally increase the amount of freedom, the amount of possibility for socializing with others,” said Winter. “What there really is no justification for is to say that the only way to be safe is to put this person in a blank room with a steel door, in a room that is the size of a small bathroom. That is not needed for safety.”

The fourth reform proposed is to give inmates in solitary confinement some incentives to reward them for good behavior.

“It just can’t be sticks. There has to be carrots,” said Winter. “Because what the prisoners kept saying was, ‘All we can do is lose the little that we have’. And that just throws people into total despair.”

Winter cited the example of Mississippi, which permanently shut down its infamous Unit 32 solitary confinement facility in 2010, where corrections officials offered a series of rewards to isolated inmates who do not commit infractions. Some of the rewards the state offered included granting inmates a special meal, an additional visit from their families, an extra telephone call, and even allowing the inmates to listen to music on MP3 players.

“So there’s all sorts of small rewards that in the context of prison are hugely meaningful. And you can use that system as an alternative to simply cutting everything off to control behavior,” said Winter.

The fifth reform proposed is to allow SHU prisoners some access to see or experience nature – things many people take for granted – like grass or the sky or the moon or natural light.

“One of the things I’ve heard from former SHU prisoners is that one of the hardest parts is never seeing nature or living things. People talk about going 10 years without seeing the moon. So really basic things that we take for granted. Like not seeing a bird or an insect,” said Reiter. “Those kinds of things don’t require any safety compromises to make sure that we treat people more like the human beings everybody is no matter what they’ve done, making sure that they have access to living things and natural light, for instance.”


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