Mandela: Solitary confinement was the worst

Mandela: Solitary confinement was the worst

By the end this week of his long life, South African statesman Nelson Mandela had become one of the most famous former prisoners in history. He was convicted in 1962 of conspiracy to overthrow the state and he served 27 years afterward in South African prisons, 18 of those years in the prison at on Robben Island. His cell there measured 8 feet by 7 feet. The prisoners did hard manual labor each day and were routinely abused by guards. But in a book about his prison years called “Conversations with Myself,” Mandela said the worst of it all was solitary confinement. He landed in solitary several times when guards caught him carrying smuggled-in newspaper clippings.

“I found solitary confinement the most forbidding aspect of prison life,” he wrote. “There is no end and no beginning; there is only one’s mind, which can begin to play tricks. Was that a dream or did it really happen? One begins to question everything.”

In Colorado, solitary confinement is a real problem — in state and federal facilities here. Civil rights activists have been pushing state authorities without success to stop warehousing mentally ill prisoners in solitary.

As Susan Greene has reported for the Independent, this coming legislative session, at the urging of the ACLU’s state chapter, Senator Jessie Ulibarri, D-Adams County, is sponsoring a bill to find alternatives to the use of so-called administrative segregation for prisoners who have been diagnosed with psychological disorders. The ACLU has yet to find a sponsor in the House.

Ulibarri told Greene that it costs about twice as much to house a prisoner in solitary confinement than in the general population. “Ad-seg,” he said, is too often used for prisoners who pose no serious threat.

“It doesn’t help them. It hurts them,” he said. “In Colorado, by using solitary confinement as the default for mentally ill prisoners, we’re doing the least safe thing for the most amount of money.”

[ Top image: Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island. ]

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About the Author

John Tomasic

Writer, editor, teacher, web wrangler. He has worked for art, business, culture, politics publications, five universities and a UN war crimes commission. @johntomasic | 720-432-2128 |


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