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Bill to reform California's near-solitary prison units dies

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) - A bill aimed at easing some conditions for inmates in near-solitary confinement in California prisons has died in the state legislature amid concerns that Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, who has held a tough line on prison issues, would veto it.

The measure to allow inmates in the state's Security Housing Units to keep photographs and make a phone call after three months of good behavior was listed as inactive on Friday after a decision on Thursday evening by state Senator Loni Hancock to drop it, a spokesman said.

"I became convinced that to get a bill signed into law would require further weakening it to a point where it could no longer accomplish it goals," Hancock said. 

California has drawn criticism from human rights organizations for its use of prolonged, indeterminate sentencing in its security housing units, which keep some inmates by themselves for nearly 23 hours a day.

Last year, Brown's administration implemented new regulations aimed at helping inmates work their way out of the units, where prisoners believed to be members of prison gangs have been held indefinitely, some for decades.

In the summer of 2013, inmates protested the indefinite detention in the units by starting a hunger strike in July that lasted two months and at its peak attracted 30,000 prisoners.

The state currently holds 3,400 inmates in the units, a spokeswoman said.

California is already struggling with other issues in its 34-prison system, including compliance with an order by a panel of federal judges to reduce severe overcrowding.

(Additional reporting by Aaron Mendelson; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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