Senator Mark Leno speaks on restricting solitary confinement as (l to r) Marian Edelman, Sarah Stroud, and District Attorney George Gascón looks on (Kevin Kelleher/Special to S.F. Examiner)

New Leno bill seeks to change debate over youth in solitary confinement

The debate over solitary confinement for youth could take a new turn in the state legislature with the introduction next month of a bill that calls the practice “torture,” Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said Tuesday.

Leno’s bill, called the Stop the Torture of Children Act, would limit the amount of time a youth inmate could be isolated in a cell alone to four hours or less, according to a draft of the legislation.

Twenty states and Washington, D.C., have already banned the use of solitary confinement as punishment for youth, while New York City has prohibited the practice altogether for people under 21, according to Leno’s office.

Leno introduced a similar bill, Senate Bill 124, earlier this year that was ultimately held up in a committee. He hopes the new language, referring to solitary confinement as torture, will make a difference.

Unlike SB 124, the new legislation would also require juvenile detention agencies in the state to record an inmate’s time spent in isolation. Because local and state agencies are not required to record that time now, it’s unknown how many youth inmates currently serve time in solitary in California, Leno said.

If the bill passes, California would come one step closer to matching the United Nation’s 2011 call to ban solitary for youth and people with disabilities.

Youth can be held in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours per day in California, where the average nonadult stays in isolation for 109 days, Leno said. At a press conference Tuesday at the Hiram W. Johnson State Building in The City, he called the practice a “shameful scar on the soul of California.”

“These are children in our care for whom we are legally responsible for their care and education,” Leno said Tuesday, adding that solitary confinement can have a detrimental effect on a young person’s future, increases the chance that a child will return to lockup and provides no therapeutic or rehabilitative use.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon supports Leno’s effort to end the practice, which he called inhumane and a danger to public safety. “A juvenile placed in solitary is going to be affected for the rest of their life,” he said.

Sarah Shourd, a former Iranian political prisoner who served 410 days in isolation in 2009, has become a prison reform advocate and author. She spoke in favor of Leno’s bill Tuesday.

Shourd said the time she spent in solitary confinement still produces bouts of insomnia, rage and depression within her, even though she was 30 years old, practiced yoga and spoke three languages when incarcerated.

“I think that, for a juvenile, any amount is too much,” Shourd said.

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