Our Voices

California should honor Mandela by limiting solitary confinement

By Chris Holden and Daniel Tse

July 18 marks Nelson Mandela Day, an occasion to commemorate the life of the revered South African leader. Mandela was not only a champion of justice, and an advocate for equality and freedom, he was also an activist who survived incarceration and torture in his fight for change.

In his fight, Mandela overcame countless hardships, perhaps none more than his time in solitary confinement.

Indeed Mandela’s perseverance in the face of the cruel torture he endured in isolation is a testament to his resilience and the unspeakable cruelty of the practice that is solitary confinement. Mandela endured more than 6 years in solitary during his 27 years of imprisonment, and his name and legacy are now forever tied to the issue. His struggle should serve as an inspiration in the fight to combat injustice, and to limit solitary confinement in California.

In December 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted the “United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment Prisoners” otherwise known as the Nelson Mandela Rules. These rules set critical standards for the treatment of incarcerated individuals, including the recognition that the use of solitary confinement beyond 15 days is torture.

This standard has been adopted by the majority of the world. Only the United States continues to use solitary confinement in a widespread and systematic manner, despite the clear evidence that the practice is not only a human rights violation but serves no rehabilitative purpose.

In fact, numerous studies have shown that solitary confinement causes serious harm to the mind and body of the individual who experiences it, even for short periods. Rather than making individuals or facilities safer, it is correlated with higher rates of self-harm and perpetuates cycles of violence inside facilities, and makes reintegration into society much more difficult.

Far from aiding rehabilitation, solitary confinement has often been used as a weapon of submission. This is particularly true when it is used against people of color. Studies have shown that African refugees who find themselves in immigrant detention facilities, or African-Americans who are victims of mass incarceration face disproportionately higher rates of solitary confinement than their counterparts. The fight to limit solitary confinement is not about human rights, but also racial justice.

California has its own dark history with respect to the use of solitary confinement. Many people forget that until recently our state kept individuals in solitary confinement for decades at a time. This summer marks the ten-year anniversary of historic hunger strikes which took place in California prisons in the summer of 2013 when more than 30,000 people protested the ongoing use of solitary confinement. Despite continuous struggles for change, including the historic Ashker Settlement agreement, California remains woefully behind other states on the issue of solitary confinement.

California has also seen dark days for immigrants held in detention. Despite the fact that immigrants are awaiting administrative hearings and are in civil detention, they have experienced abuse and neglect by private prison companies that run these facilities. In 2020, Choung Won Ahn a 74-year-old Korean man took his own life after being placed in solitary confinement. In 2022, immigrants organizing for their labor strike were reportedly placed in solitary confinement as a form of retaliation for protesting their $1 a day wages. Immigrants in detention are particularly vulnerable, as they often are not shielded by certain constitutional protections, including the right to appointed counsel.

That is why a partnership has been formed between formerly incarcerated individuals, advocates, and California lawmakers to introduce AB 280, the California Mandela Act. This bill codifies the 15-day limit on solitary from the ‘Mandela Rules’ and completely bans the practice on people who are pregnant, in vulnerable age groups, and those with severe disabilities. The bill is a priority for the California Black Caucus and stands as a testament to the belief that we as a state can agree on issues related to human rights and racial justice.

As we commemorate the life and legacy of Mandela, we must not only learn from his perseverance in fighting for justice but recognize the lasting impact that solitary confinement can have on individuals and our communities. We must strive to create systems that serve rehabilitation and human dignity, and challenge practices that dehumanize and torture.

Chris Holden represents California’s 41st Assembly District. Daniel Tse is a joint Legal Fellow at Haitian Bridge Alliance & Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.

Read the original article in Capitol Weekly here.