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A Breakthrough on Solitary

Connecting solitary confinement to disability rights has helped California advocates advance in the effort to end this barbaric practice.


On May 17, 2020, seventy-four-year-old Korean immigrant Choung Woong Ahn took his own life after being placed in Mesa Verde Detention Center’s “medical isolation,” a euphemism for solitary confinement. Mr. Ahn’s death would become a turning point in the fight to end the use of solitary confinement in California. Like Jeon Tae-il, the martyr whose death by self-immolation created the “single spark” to set off a labor revolution in South Korea, Mr. Ahn’s death would galvanize a coalition of immigration, disability, and transformative justice advocates.

Following the lead of New York’s HALT Act, this coalition—which included Disability Rights California, the watchdog agency at which I am policy counsel—together drafted the California Mandela Act. The act creates a fifteen-day limit to the use of solitary confinement in jails, prisons, and private immigration detention, and excludes disabled people, pregnant people, and vulnerable age groups from its use altogether. The Mandela Act was first introduced as Assembly Bill 2632, and although it passed through the California legislature, it was vetoed by Governor Gavin Newsom. In the most recent legislative season, it was reintroduced as Assembly Bill 280, this time receiving even greater support through a super majority vote in the Assembly. However, the governor did not indicate his support, and the bill will now enter its second year. The coalition will be working to persuade the governor to sign the bill into law during this legislative session.

I write as a legal practitioner to outline our path, in hopes it may contribute strategy knowledge to similar struggles. So doing, I also hope to contribute to the conversation about how legal training can contribute to activism in ways that center those most directly and adversely impacted by the carceral system.

The term “solitary confinement” is never actually used by any carceral authority. Instead, its euphemisms abound: in addition to medical isolation, they include disciplinary segregation, administrative segregation, special housing unit, management control unit, safety cell, and on and on. Whatever they call it, penal institutions employ solitary confinement in various ways, but foremost to discipline and control individuals who challenge their authority. First started by the Quakers in the late eighteenth century as a rehabilitative measure, the practice was soon criticized and fell out of favor for its deleterious effects. But by the mid 1980s, the United States ramped up its use as part of the movement toward mass incarceration. Supermax facilities such as Pelican Bay State Prison in California, which subjected people to endless isolation in cells the size of a parking spot, exemplified its pervasive use.

Disability Rights California joined the fight to end solitary confinement in California because solitary confinement intersects with disability in two related ways.

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First, solitary confinement is especially punitive, and dangerous, for disabled people. Disability justice legal scholar Jamelia Morgan has written extensively about the particular harms of solitary confinement on people with disabilities. For individuals with serious mental illness, the isolation can create further unraveling and descent into psychosis, which further perpetuates their segregation from others. For the physically disabled, the inability to move about and have access to necessary rehabilitative therapy can aggravate and cause lingering, sometimes irreversible bodily damage. People with sensory disabilities—for example, those who are blind, d/Deaf, or hard of hearing—experience a magnification of the punishing effects of isolation. Individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities are disproportionately subjected to solitary because they are often mistaken for deliberately defying commands or refusing to comply with orders.

Second, solitary confinement itself produces disability. Psychiatrist Terry Kupers has examined the disabling effects of solitary: Left almost completely alone for days on end in a cell that is often squalid, even healthy individuals experience nearly instantaneous “isolation panic,” begin to rapidly deteriorate physically, and before long develop irreversible psychological and physical harm. Solitary Watch’s digital archive of firsthand accounts of solitary (and accompanying print anthology Hell Is a Very Small Place) is replete with testimony about solitary’s disabling effects on both mind and body.

From its inception, the fight to pass the Mandela Act involved a coalition of advocates representing overlapping communities of immigrants, disabled people, and system-impacted individuals. The initial strategizing for a legislative solution occurred in the pursuit of justice for Mr. Ahn, and was discussed by Immigrant Defense Advocates, the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, and Disability Rights California. Disability Rights California had become involved with the investigation into Mr. Ahn’s death after his lawyers from Centro Legal de la Raza and the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice reached out to us. We filed a joint administrative complaint, asking the federal government to conduct its own investigation into Mesa Verde’s numerous violations of federal law. The federal government’s failure to make changes to the practice of segregated confinement in private detention facilities served as a primary impetus to our consideration of a legislative approach.

The idea took off thanks to support from experienced organizers with the HALT Campaign, and those who had been fighting for more than a decade for change in California—most principally, formerly incarcerated individuals and their loved ones who were pivotal leaders during the hunger strikes at Pelican Bay State Prison, the related agreement to end racial hostilities, and the Ashker lawsuit which ended indefinite solitary confinement in California prisons.

Those who endured solitary, and their immediate loved ones, served as the principal spokespeople for the legislation. Within the organized coalition, the two principal organizations were California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement and Berkeley Underground Scholars. The other core coalition members were Immigrant Defense Advocates, NextGen Policy, Disability Rights California, Prison Law Office, California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. We collectively held community meetings, online trainings, public rallies, and media campaigns to raise awareness about the harms caused by solitary confinement. Through our efforts, we gained support for the Mandela Act from a wide range of community and legal organizations, as well as endorsements from multiple media outlets.

We deliberately followed the lead of New York’s HALT Act because of the abolitionist approach of the coalition which led to its passage, which foregrounded the leadership of system-impacted individuals. The HALT coalition demonstrated that abolishing solitary did not require building more facilities or adding to the carceral system; to the contrary, limiting solitary saved the state money. We were similarly able to counter the opposition’s arguments by providing analyses that demonstrated that ending solitary was sound fiscal policy. The HALT coalition’s efforts further instructed us by their refusal to compromise their vision simply to secure passage of their legislation. They held strong to their standards, imagined by some to initially be impractical, in order to accomplish meaningful change.

The core tenets of the Mandela Act are based on the standards set by the United Nation’s Mandela Rules. California’s Mandela Act imposes a fifteen-day limit on the use of solitary confinement. For individuals who belong to certain named vulnerable groups—disabled people, pregnant people, people under twenty years old and those over sixty—it makes it illegal to place them in solitary confinement at all. It requires meaningful social engagement and programming outside of solitary. It requires data collection and oversight. And it leaves nobody behind: the act covers all carceral facilities, be they prisons, jails, or private immigration detention.

One of the primary features of the Mandela Act is naming the practice of solitary confinement itself in statute. Getting these changes written into state law means that the Board of State and Community Corrections, which sets the standards for jails, and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which governs prisons, will need to adopt regulations that align with the statute.

At the campaign’s heart are solitary survivors and activists, some of whom do not belong to a nonprofit organization. It has been vital to the campaign to receive financial support from organizations such as the Unlock the Box Campaign to ensure that their time and energy is compensated—particularly when they choose to share their stories and experiences, as doing so can take an emotional toll that can never be adequately remunerated.

My hope is that other concerned individuals will join this urgent human rights struggle. For anyone seeking to learn more, the Unlock the Box Campaign provides a central organizing site for ending solitary confinement in all of its punishing and dehumanizing forms. Before this legislative session ends, we will continue to engage with Governor Newsom to secure his signature so that California can join the ranks of New York, New Jersey, and a growing number of states that are working to end solitary confinement. Although the effort to end solitary confinement can seem daunting, the coalition takes faith knowing that these practices are not inevitable; their origins in the early penal practices of the Quakers, escalated by the “war on crime” and the building of supermax prisons, teaches us that what has been built can also be dismantled.

Image: Sigmund/Unsplash