Thirty-two years ago this month, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. During his 27 years of imprisonment, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement endured hunger, forced labor, and verbal and physical abuse.
Despite these countless hardships, he found solitary confinement to be the worst punishment of all. “There is no end and no beginning [in solitary]; there is only one’s mind, which can begin to play tricks,” Mandela later wrote in his autobiography. “One begins to question everything.”
In imposing strict limits on the use of solitary confinement, the 2021 PROTECT Act would have prevented hundreds of people in Connecticut prisons from experiencing the harrowing isolation that Mandela endured four decades ago. But Gov. Ned Lamont vetoed the bill last June, issuing an Executive Order in its place, nullifying the will of the legislature and the voices of directly impacted people across the state.
In his veto message, Governor Lamont declared that the Executive Order’s restrictions on isolation were “stronger than [the] United Nations’ Mandela Rules.” While some aspects of the Executive Order appear more progressive than the Mandela Rules, the reality of its implementation fails to uphold both the spirit and the letter of the rules.
Named after the South African activist, the Mandela Rules establish universal minimum standards for the treatment of incarcerated people based on the premise that all people have “inherent dignity and value as human beings.” In accordance with the Mandela Rules, the Executive Order restricts prolonged isolated confinement to 15 days and gives people in the general population four hours out of their cells each day—but it allows for lockdowns in “extraordinary circumstances,” which corrections officers routinely exploit to keep people in conditions identical to solitary.
In letters to Stop Solitary CT, people at Cheshire Correctional Institution report that they are locked in their cells for up to 72 hours at a time, during which they are unable to even shower. The Mandela Rules state that solitary confinement should be used “only in exceptional cases” and “for as short a time as possible,” but at facilities like Cheshire, isolation is virtually the norm.
The Mandela Rules also state that solitary confinement must be “subject to independent review” and is “only pursuant to the authorization by a competent authority.” Connecticut has no external prison oversight. The only entity which has the power to monitor the Department of Corrections’ use of solitary confinement is the Department of Corrections— which, according to State Senator Gary Winfield (D-New Haven), “has refused to play a part in this conversation [of limiting solitary confinement] for many, many years.”
The Department of Corrections is neither independent nor a competent authority when it comes to solitary confinement. Self-enforcement not only makes it impossible to enact the change Governor Lamont claims to support, but violates the very rules he holds up as the standard.
For Connecticut to truly respect the dignity of incarcerated people, the legislature must pass the PROTECT Act and Governor Lamont must sign it into law. The 2022 version of the PROTECT Act would codify the 15-day limit on solitary confinement into law and end the misuse of lockdowns, bringing Connecticut into compliance with the Mandela Rules. More importantly, it would establish an independent commission overseeing the Department of Corrections to enforce that compliance.
Other states including New York and New Jersey have already passed laws bringing their use of solitary confinement in line or nearly in line with the Mandela Rules; it’s time for Connecticut to do the same.
In his 2022 State of the State address, Governor Lamont touted steady job growth and a record-breaking budget surplus as evidence of what he called the “Connecticut difference.” But can we celebrate these successes in good conscience when the real difference between Connecticut and neighboring states is that Connecticut continues to violate the basic human rights of incarcerated people? What does our refusal to uphold even minimum standards in our prisons say about our values?
After being released from prison, Mandela said, “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
Solitary confinement should not be a divisive political issue. Connecticut’s elected officials have the responsibility to ensure its laws protect the humanity and dignity of all its people. By taking the first step of passing the PROTECT Act, they can begin to do just that.
Noah Bradley, Elaine Cheng and Caleb Lee live in New Haven.