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‘Mandela Act’ Could Be First Step Toward Abolishing Solitary Confinement in California

We can observe Black August by advocating for prisoners. AB2632 is stuck in the state Senate Appropriations Committee, which must act by August 11.

Black and white photograph of the bars of a jail cell.
Image: Jonathan Haeber | Flickr

Black August is an observance started in California in the 1970s to commemorate Black political prisoners. One of the ways we can honor and fight for political prisoners and all imprisoned populations is by heavily restricting one of the worst tools of repression the carceral system has: the unregulated and repressive torture of solitary confinement. 

Albert Woodfox, ex–Black Panther Party member and the longest-held political prisoner in the history of the US — who spent 44 years in solitary confinement — passed away on August 4, 2022. In his words, “solitary confinement is used as a punishment for the specific purpose of breaking a prisoner.” We can organize against a system that uses torture by passing AB2632 CA Mandela Act this month, which currently is hidden away in the California Senate Appropriations Committee.

Solitary Confinement Is Torture

The United Nations General Assembly ratified the Nelson Mandela Rules in 2015, which prohibit any period of solitary confinement beyond 15 days and define it as torture. Despite this crucial international step, solitary confinement is commonly used in the California carceral system, which holds over 10,000 people in solitary annually.

Although solitary confinement has been well-established by physicians and psychiatrists to be a cause of extremely harmful effects on mental and physical health, California prisons often hold people in isolation for 23 hours per day. This barbaric practice  has an exceptionally negative impact on disabled populations, who are regularly held in solitary confinement instead of receiving proper services. In 2018, a pregnant woman in Santa Rita County Jail was sent to solitary confinement when she went into labor — instead of being given medical attention — and gave birth alone in her cell.

In addition to a violation of all people’s human rights, solitary confinement is specifically a racist tool of terror for social control. Since the beginning of the modern carceral state, solitary confinement has been used disproportionately against nonwhite populations.

Solitary confinement is also used as a tool of repression against imprisoned populations advocating for themselves. Incarcerated people have long been organizing to restrict this torturous policy throughout California, including engaging in hunger and work strikes. In response to their organizing for fundamental human rights, such as sunlight and healthcare, solitary confinement is used to isolate and punish leaders and terrorize the remaining population into submission.

How to Fix it

The AB2632 CA Mandela Act, which would bring California in line with the internationally recognized minimum for human rights, is currently frozen in the California Senate Appropriations (Fiscal) Committee. If passed, this Act would (1) provide a clear definition of what constitutes solitary confinement across California prisons, jails, and detention centers, while also setting limits on how it can be used, and (2) end the use of solitary confinement for special populations, including those with disabilities, pregnant women, youth, and the elderly. Passing this legislation is a crucial first action in protecting the most vulnerable from torture and eventually ending solitary confinement.

Senator Anthony Portantino, chair of the Appropriations Committee. (Image: Anthony Portantino | Facebook)

Roadblocks: Prison Interests and Undemocratic Process

Since this bill would help curb routine violation of human rights by restricting the power of the carceral system, the powerful prison-industrial complex (PIC), including the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and the California State Sheriffs’ Association, is fighting back. The PIC is working overtime to either kill it or attach a poison pill to the bill, wherein the CDCR would get a whopping $1 billion on top of their annual budget of $13.6 billion, described by experts as a “money pit.”

The coalition for CA Mandela Act has already disproved the lies of the CDCR. And their cost analysis demonstrates that the bill could actually save the state money.

At the same time, the fate of the bill is almost entirely in the control of one individual, Senator Anthony Portantino, who is the chair of the Appropriations Committee. The undemocratic California legislative process means that all bills must pass through this committee, but then the chair of this committee has complete control of which bills even get a vote. Senator Portantino, who represents the 25th state Senate district in the San Fernando Valley, has to be personally swayed to schedule a vote for the CA Mandela Act, and refuse to add more money for prisons. The legislative session for the Senate Appropriations Committee ends August 12, so we must act quickly.

While these obstacles are large, they are not unique, and we can gain confidence from other states — such as New York, New Jersey, Washington, Connecticut, and Colorado — that have already passed similar bills even when faced with the same roadblocks.

What We Can Do

You can find out which organizations already support the bill in the open letter by the coalition here, and you can push for organizations you are a part of to sign the open letter and join the movement here. The coalition will release a social media toolkit, including sample tweets, graphics, and an email script, on August 8 here. Please use it to gain traction and encourage others to join the organizing as well. This Black August, we must remember that only by organizing together do we have the opportunity to shape our communities with legislation that keeps us safe.