California Department of Insurance-Sponsored Legislation Cracking Down on Inhumane Conditions in Private Prisons Signed by Governor Newsom

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By Jackson Sullivan

SB 334 (Durazo), known as the Private Detention Accountability Act, as amended September 2, 2021, adds section 679.75 to the Insurance Code and section 9506 to the Penal Code to require private detention facilities to maintain general liability, umbrella liability, automobile, and workers’ compensation insurance coverage. The bill also authorizes insurers providing such insurance to consider whether the private detention facility has complied with prescribed health and safety standards before providing coverage.

In a February 9, 2021 press release, Commissioner Lara announced the introduction of the bill by Senator Durazo and the Department of Insurance’s co-sponsorship of the bill with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights.  Senator Durazo stated that private prisons “should be held accountable to the same health and safety standards that we’ve set as our baselines for operation in public facilities in California.” The press release cited a 2018 study by Human Rights Watch finding that at least fifteen immigrants had died in the custody of for-profit prisons.

In a June 24, 2021 press release that marked SB 334’s passage by the Assembly Insurance Committee, Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara thanked the Insurance Committee Chair Tom Daly for working closely with the Department on the measure. In particular, Commissioner Lara expressed hope that the bill would hold for-profit prisons accountable for their “long and well-documented history of violating immigrants’ human rights” by “creating clear consequences if they fail to protect refugees and asylum seekers.”

During the passage of the bill, the author pointed to several reports of unlawful treatment of detainees, including a 2019 USA Today investigation of numerous facilities revealing more than 400 allegations of sexual assault or abuse, inadequate medical care and the frequent use of solitary confinement; 800 accounts of physical force against detainees; nearly 20,000 grievances filed by detainees; and at least 29 fatalities, including seven suicides. Additionally, the author pointed to concerns raised by private lawyers and advocacy organizations that for-profit, private facilities are not ensuring that high-risk individuals are protected from the COVID-19 virus. Opponents of the bill argue that this change in law effectively forces insurers to act as regulators for private prisons by forcing insurers to confirm private prisons’ compliance with various laws and standards of care.

Governor Newsom signed SB 334 on September 24, 2021 (Chapter 298, Statutes of 2021).

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