In 2015, in honor of long-jailed South African activist Nelson Mandela, the United Nations updated and adopted the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, calling them the Nelson Mandela Rules. These rules include guidelines for the use of solitary confinement:
The Mandela Rules, updated in 2015, are a revised minimum standard of UN rules that defines solitary confinement as “the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact.” Solitary confinement may only be imposed in exceptional circumstances, and “prolonged” solitary confinement of more than 15 consecutive days is regarded as a form of torture.United Nations Report on Use of solitary confinement in United States, february 28, 2020
This week, news came of a hunger strike by prisoners in Texas prisons to protest the extensive and prolonger use of solitary confinement. The practice is often used “proactively” by separating gang members and others considered a danger even if they have not committed infractions. According to PBS News Hour, some 3100 prisoners are in solitary confinement in Texas, many of them held that way for more than a decade. This is, under the Mandela rules, torture.
Virginia’s General Assembly is considering a bill that would limit the use of solitary confinement using the Mandela rules as its guideline for no more than 15 consecutive days over the course of a 60-day period. I have contacted my representative to let him know that I support this legislation. I also used it as an opportunity to remind him that I am against the death penalty as well. You can read the legislation at the Virginia’s Legislative System website. While you’re there, you can browse other legislation, and if you feel called to contact your representative but aren’t sure who it might be, use the Who’s My Legislator website to find out.
Virginia does not have a good track record when it comes to the use of solitary confinement. Twelve inmates and former inmates filed a lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Corrections, alleging that VDOC has been using semantics to get around its own program to end solitary confinement. The investigation into the death of an inmate in solitary confinement in January 2022 provides some insight into the practice as well as the semantic games: solitary confinement is now called “restorative housing.”