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    As Gov. Newsom transforms San Quentin, he cannot ignore the problem of solitary confinement
    • April 3, 2023

    They say good things come to those who wait. When you are in solitary confinement, all you have is time to wait and the hope that things can get better. I know this through my own experiences in isolation, and as an advocate to end the use of solitary confinement in our state and country. As Gov. Gavin Newsom announces a historic transformation of San Quentin and the pursuit of rehabilitation, survivors of solitary confinement are waiting when the governor will decide to end this cruel practice and instead support humane  alternatives.

    I spent years in solitary confinement throughout my incarceration. Sometimes it was months and sometimes weeks. But even one day in isolation does not escape the immediate feeling of doom and  despair. I was placed in solitary instead of receiving counseling, and support for my substance use problem. This was the darkest period of my life. I was alone and isolated when I needed community, support and guidance. I would often try to escape through my memories to a different place. I survived, but the experience hurt my soul.

    Like the death row ward that Gov. Newsom is now shutting down, solitary confinement is an expensive and ineffective relic of mass incarceration. It is a practice that is designed to punish and humiliate, and perpetuates systematic violence. When I was held in solitary confinement the practice was accepted as normal, with an estimated 12,000 people being held in solitary in California, many for more than a decade.

    Thankfully this practice was challenged through the brave advocacy and leadership of incarcerated people, starting in 2011 when a series of hunger strikes were launched in Pelican Bay State Prison Security Housing Unit (SHU), and quickly started a movement to limit the use of solitary confinement. The largest of these strikes, which took place in 2013, included the participation of 30,000 incarcerated people across the state of California, and received international attention.

    In 2011 I co-founded California Families Against Solitary Confinement along with several families impacted by solitary confinement, not only because I was personally impacted by the issue, but because my son was in Pelican Bay and participated in the hunger strikes. I was invested not only as a solitary survivor, but as a mother concerned with the fate of her son.

    The organizing and advocacy led to important gains for this movement, including legal settlements designed to ensure that California prisons did not overuse solitary. However the fight continued, as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) continued to violate the legal settlement it agreed to.

    In 2022 California introduced the Mandela Act, modeled after progressive legislation passed by other states, including New York, designed to limit the use of solitary confinement to 15 days, and requiring facilities to provide safe alternatives to intense isolation. The Mandela Act received broad support from the legislature and would have made California the first state in the country to pass a bill that also included immigrants in private detention facilities.

    Unfortunately the bill was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom when it reached his desk. The veto was disappointing because the governor noted that the issue was “ripe for reform” before refusing to sign the bill, and instead directing CDCR to issue regulations.

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    What hurt the most was that the governor did not take the time to understand the history of this issue, to hear our stories of pain and isolation, or to truly understand what needed to be done to make progres. In the fall of 2022 solitary survivors penned an open letter to lawmakers and Governor Newsom reminding him of the rich history of our struggle, and our belief that change is possible. We received no response.

    We are not asking for a lot. Our bill was modeled after standards set for by the United Nations, the so-called “Mandela Rules” and should be embraced and celebrated by the governor if he is truly interested in making California a leader.

    The governor cannot have it both ways. He cannot claim to be a leader in criminal justice reform, and support efforts for reimagining institutions like San Quentin while ignoring the issue of solitary confinement.

    The California Mandela Act was reintroduced in 2023 as Assembly Bill 280, and stands as an opportunity for redemption for Gov. Newsom and for our state. For those of us who have survived solitary confinement, the wait for something better has taken far too long.

    Dolores Canales is co-founder of California Families Against Solitary Confinement and a member of the California Mandela Campaign. 

    ​ Orange County Register