FIVE YEARS AGO, the United Nations General Assembly decided to extend the scope of Nelson Mandela International Day, observed each year on 18 July, to promote humane conditions of imprisonment. The UN adopted the revised Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, and approved the name “Nelson Mandela Rules” in order to honor the legacy of the late President of South Africa, who spent 27 years in prison and is known for championing global human rights, equality, democracy and the promotion of a culture of peace’.
The ‘Nelson Mandela Rules,’ stipulate that “prisoners should enjoy the same standards of health care that are available in the community; and in cases where prisoners are suspected of having contagious diseases [particular attention shall be paid to] providing for the clinical isolation and adequate treatment of those prisoners during the infectious period.” Rule 43 states that “In no circumstances may restrictions or disciplinary sanctions amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The following practices, in particular, shall be prohibited: (a) Indefinite solitary confinement; (b) Prolonged solitary confinement.” Many incarcerated persons in California are now subject to both these outlawed practices.
The Humane Prison Hospice Project, a Bay Area civil society organization co-founded by Ladybird Morgan, Sandra Fish, and former prisoner Marvin Mutch, to implement end of life care in prisons by supporting and training prisoners to be the caregivers, is appalled by the fact that more than 5000 incarcerated persons in California’s prisons have contracted the disease thus far, an infection rate of about 40 per 1,000 and rising — more than seven times higher than the infection rate for the state’s general population as a whole. 730 of California’s prison staffers have tested positive as well, with at least two having died from the infection. As of this writing, thirty-six California prisoners have died in chains and without palliative care.
Humane Prison Hospice Board Member Dr Katherine Pettus said “I received a letter today from my son Pablo who is incarcerated at San Quentin for a drug related offense; three weeks ago, my son and hundreds of other San Quentin prisoners tested positive for Covid-19. Pablo is now being held in a state of indefinite solitary confinement at San Quentin and wrote “this is making history as my friend in the cell next door has been saying. We don’t even get [exercise] yard. I can’t go out and get some fresh air and sunshine. P.S. My neighbor says over ten people have died in the prison from COVID-19.””
California can and must do better. Although the US doesn’t appear to value international law, the Humane Prison Hospice Project urges Governor Newsom, California mayors, and prison wardens to adhere to international human rights standards such as the Mandela Rules.