California has another chance to get it right on solitary confinement

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OPINION – Solitary confinement is torture. I would know, because I spent more than 25 years in isolation and can attest to its horrors. Solitary confinement damages your mind, body and soul. Humans need each other like they need food and air. When you are isolated, you lose the ability to live as a normal human. I was lucky to survive my time and now have the opportunity and privilege to speak on behalf of so many who did not.

That is why I am joining the California Mandela Campaign to support AB 280 the California Mandela Act by Chris Holden. AB 280 sets clear limits on the use of solitary confinement and provides alternatives to isolation that ensure safety and dignity for incarcerated individuals. The bill sets clear limits on the use of solitary confinement and ends the practices entirely for pregnant people, as well as those in certain age groups and with certain disabilities.

Solitary confinement is designed to crush the human spirit. There is a reason why facilities so often use windowless cells and keep people locked down for 23 hours, for weeks, months, years, and decades. It is designed to overwhelm your body and mind with silence and isolation. It is the worst poison for social beings, and it leads to permanent damage to those who are exposed to it.

The most important thing to me during my period of incarceration was my connection to my family, my loved ones and my community. That is why isolation is so horrific. It severs the ties that we care about the most. When I was in solitary confinement, I would use the holidays as a way to stay close to my loved ones and let them know that I had not forgotten them. I would use old newspapers and what little paper I had to construct makeshift holiday cards. My connection to my community is what allowed me to survive.

Solitary confinement is designed to crush the human spirit…It is designed to overwhelm your body and mind with silence and isolation.

Many people would be surprised to learn that California has a dark history on the use of solitary confinement. A decade ago California held an estimated 12,000 people in solitary confinement, garnering attention from the United Nations and human rights advocates. According to a report released by Amnesty International in 2012, more than 500 individuals in California had spent more than a decade in solitary, and more than 75 had been in isolation for 20 years or more.

This practice was challenged and exposed by organizing inside California’s prisons when a series of hunger strikes took place to raise awareness about the issue, with the first starting in 2011. The strikes reached their peak in 2013, when 30,000 incarcerated people joined together demanding changes to the use of solitary confinement. The organizing and solidarity around the hunger strike led to a groundbreaking class action lawsuit challenging the use of solitary confinement in what is known as the Ashker agreement.

The hunger strikes were not only a wake-up call for the state of California, but they were a catalyst for organizing and solidarity, and inspired a brief hope that change could be achieved from the inside out, through organizing and solidarity. States like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Colorado have all passed legislation limiting the use of solitary confinement.

Last year, California joined these states when the legislature passed AB 2632, the first version of the  California Mandela Act. Unfortunately, Governor Newsom vetoed this bill despite acknowledging that the issue was “ripe for reform.” He has since tasked the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to explore a regulatory solution to the issue, but has said nothing about how to end the practice in jails or private immigration detention centers.

That is why we are supporting the reintroduction of the Mandela Act in 2023 with updated language that addresses the concerns raised by the opposition and setting the stage for finding just, humane and impactful solutions.

Today, I am lucky to say that I am a solitary survivor and am dedicating my time to assist others who are formerly incarcerated reintegrate to society. My hope is that through advocacy and understanding we can build a society in which no one has to experience the pain of prolonged isolation and solitary confinement.

Jack Morris is a Program Director at St. John’s Well Child and Family Center helping formerly incarcerated people reenter society.


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