In summary

As California reimagines its prison system, a reformer who spent years imprisoned in isolation questions why Gov. Gavin Newsom’s agenda has largely sidestepped the issue of solitary confinement.

Guest Commentary written by

Kevin McCarthy

Kevin McCarthy

Kevin McCarthy is a solitary survivor and a member of the UC Berkeley Underground Scholars. He is also the co-author of “The Cost of Solitary Confinement: Why Ending Isolation in California Prisons Can Save Money and Save Lives.”

California has come a long way on solitary confinement. I know this because I spent more than a decade in isolation, and have been organizing with other solitary survivors to limit the practice in our state.

While California has been a progressive leader on so many issues, it remains woefully behind on reforming solitary confinement, and has a dark history when it comes to this practice.

My own horrific experience with isolation began at the California Youth Authority when I was 16 years old, the result of a heroin habit I developed when I was 15. I was subject to isolation and lockdown despite the fact that I was still a developing youth who needed drug counseling, not sensory deprivation.

It is difficult to understate the damage solitary can do to an individual, never mind a developing youth. Studies have shown that it can alter the way the brain forms, and even limited exposure can result in significant harm to a person’s mental and physical health.

Later in my 20s, I spent more than a decade on a 23-hour lockdown at the notorious Pelican Bay Prison. During this period I struggled to remember the feeling of human touch, and would struggle simply to retain my sanity amidst the loneliness of the concrete and steel. It hurts me to say that many others I was detained with died by suicide because they simply could not stand it.

I often say that I would have preferred a physical beating to the mental torture that still haunts me to do this day. 

The practice of solitary confinement was so routine in California that many individuals were kept in isolation for years at time, some even for decades, with little to no oversight. It took multiple hunger strikes, some that grew as large as 30,000 incarcerated individuals to bring attention to the practice. Despite all of the pressure, and a class-action lawsuit, solitary confinement reform has still eluded California.

This included a monumental effort in 2022 to pass Assembly Bill 2632, the California Mandela Act, authored by Assemblymember Chris Holden. The legislation would bring California into compliance with the United Nations’ so-called Mandela Rules, including limiting solitary confinement to 15 days, and ending the practice for pregnant people and those with certain disabilities. The bill enjoyed broad support in the Legislature and made national headlines on the way to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. The governor ultimately vetoed the bill, despite recognizing that the issue was “ripe for reform.”

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

Chris Holden

Chris Holden

State Assembly, District 41 (Pasadena)

Chris Holden

State Assembly, District 41 (Pasadena)

How he voted 2021-2022
Liberal Conservative
District 41 Demographics

Voter Registration

Dem 45%
GOP 28%
No party 21%
Campaign Contributions

Asm. Chris Holden has taken at least $1.7 million from the Labor sector since he was elected to the legislature. That represents 30% of his total campaign contributions.

The bill was reintroduced this year as AB 280. We have continued to campaign for the need to enact comprehensive legislation limiting the use of solitary confinement in jails, prisons and detention facilities. 

California is not the only state that appears ready to reform solitary confinement. Across the country, numerous states have introduced their own bills to limit the use of prolonged isolation.

While Newsom is doing his best to project the image of a progressive leader ready to take on national issues, he has clearly fallen behind his own state and Legislature on this one.

Perhaps the most ironic part is that Newsom has side-stepped solitary confinement while doing a full public relations blitz on the closure of San Quentin’s death row and the reimagining of that facility

Newsom has rightly recognized that death row is costly, ineffective and inhumane. The same three principles also apply to solitary confinement. A report published this year by the California Research Bureau documents that solitary confinement does not reduce violence in facilities and that reducing the practice would actually save the state tens of millions of dollars each year. 

Solitary confinement, like death row, is a relic of mass incarceration that has no future in California or any other state in the country. Yet the question remains, how can Newsom support closing death row, but not support alternatives to isolation?

Last month, Newsom announced the creation of the San Quentin Transformation Advisory Council, with the goal of reimagining San Quentin. The multidisciplinary group was formed “with the goal to bring transformational programmatic, cultural and physical change that can serve as a symbol of hope and change.”  

While many of us are reserving hope as to recommendations of this council, it is impossible to imagine meaningful change that does not include specific and concrete changes on the issue of solitary confinement. 

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