Solitary confinement

Key Elements

Solitary confinement consists in keeping an inmate alone in a cell for over 22 hours a day. 
Because of the harmful effect on the person’s physical and mental well-being, solitary confinement should only be used in exceptional circumstances. It should be strictly supervised and used only for a limited period of time.

Under certain circumstances, solitary confinement can amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, or even torture.

Children, persons suffering from mental health disabilities, pregnant and nursing women, or women detained with their children should never be subjected to solitary confinement.

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Analysis

Solitary confinement is used with have different purposes: as a disciplinary sanction, during criminal investigations, to protect an individual, or to prevent situations of risk.

Whatever the reason for resorting to solitary confinement, its consequences can be severe for persons subjected to it and such measure must therefore be strictly regulated.

Solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure

Solitary confinement may be used as a disciplinary sanction, but it must be restricted to the most serious disciplinary offenses.

Due to its effects on the physical and mental health of individuals, solitary confinement should be limited (never more than 15 days) and procedural rules should help prevent all abusive and/or arbitrary use of such sanction.

Solitary confinement in relation to a criminal investigation

An accused person may be placed in solitary confinement to secure the criminal investigation. Such measure is used to limit contact with witnesses, accomplices or victims, and to avoid prejudicing the integrity of the proceedings.

In such cases, a magistrate must regularly review the reasons justifying this special regime, there must be a possibility to appeal the measure, and confinement must come to an end when there is no longer any justification for it. Long criminal investigations cannot justify indeterminate solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement as a protection measure

The authorities may exceptionally have to place a person in solitary confinement to protect the detainee from the risk of violence from other inmates. The consent of the person concerned is then required. Placement in solitary confinement should also be possible at the request of a person under threat.

Solitary confinement should not be seen by the authorities as a long-lasting and satisfactory solution to address specific situations where detainees are at risk. On the contrary, authorities should take all preventive measures (such as detailed classification of inmate or instituting “dynamic security”) and all corrective measures (such as reallocation of cells and/or wings or promotion of peaceful settlements of disputes) to avoid the use of solitary confinement.

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Solitary confinement as a means of protection may be reuiqred when a detainee is threatened because of his/her ethnic background or religion, political views, sexual orientation or gender identity, or any other reason. In such situations, the informed consent of the person is always required.

Solitary confinement used as a detention regime

Solitary confinement must not be used as a detention regime for certain categories of individuals considered particularly dangerous (alleged members of terrorist or criminal groups) or difficult to handle manage (people suffering from mental health disorders).

High security or "supermax" prisons apply very strict detention regimes, where detainees are subjected to particularly prolonged solitary confinement (isolated in their cells 23 hours per day, with very limited contact with the staff and the other detainees). Such systems lead to severe consequences for the health of detainees.

Risks

Whatever the reasons behind the use of solitary confinement, there are indisputable risks to people who are subject to this measure because of its effect on their physical and mental health. Psychotic troubles, anxiety, depression, anger, paranoia and self–mutilation are among the reported effects.

These effects can be particularly severe or even irreversible, especially when solitary confinement exceeds15 days.

Supervision and safeguards

The use of solitary confinement must be strictly regulated and offer solid safeguards, including limitation in time to at least mitigate its negative effects. Whenever solitary confinement lasts more than a few hours there should be controls in place to avoid any systematic and/or discriminatory use of the measure.

Once the measure is decided upon, the person concerned must be promptly informed of the decision. The detainee must be able to challenge this decision through an internal complaints system or using legal recourse. The person concerned has the right to a lawyer.

To reduce the negative effects of solitary confinement, contacts with families, fellow inmates and chaplains must be maintained.

Measures should also be taken by the authorities to ensure that the material conditions in solitary are equivalent to conditions within the rest of the institution. In the event of disciplinary confinement, accommodation may be more limited, but must meet international standards, particularly regarding the size of cells, access to light, toilets, fresh air and the ability to exercise.

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Certain categories of particularly vulnerable detainees such as children, pregnant women, nursing women, women detained with young children and people with mental disabilities should never be subjected to solitary confinement.

The role of medical personnel

Prison doctors and nurses must not be involved in the decision-making process leading to solitary confinement so as not to undermine the relationship between the medical personnel and the inmate/patient. However, they have a particularly important role to play when it comes to monitoring the effects of confinement on the physical and mental health of the detainees subjected to it and in keeping the prison authorities informed about their condition.

In any case, detainees held in solitary confinement should be seen by medical personnel at least once a day.

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Questions for monitors

Is the use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure limited to the most serious offenses?

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foreigners
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minorities
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When solitary confinement is used as a protective measure, is the person’s consent required?

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foreigners
disabilities
minorities
children

Can a detainee who feels threatened ask to be temporarily placed in solitary confinement for his/her own protection?

women
foreigners
disabilities
minorities
children

Are certain categories of detainees discriminately subjected to solitary confinement?

Who decides upon placement in solitary confinement and upon the duration of the measure?

Are some detainees subjected to solitary confinement on the sole basis of their sexual orientation?

What are the procedural safeguards in place for persons subjected to solitary confinement?

children

Are children subjected to solitary confinement?

disabilities

Are detainees with mental disabilities subjected to solitary confinement?

women

Are pregnant women, nursing women or women detained with young children subjected to solitary confinement?

Is medical staff at the prison involved in the decision to place a person in solitary confinement?

Is there regular medical supervision for detainees in solitary confinement? If so, what is the frequency?

What are the conditions of the cells used for solitary confinement?

Are access to services and activities (such as health care, sport, etc.) and contact with the outside world limited for persons subjected to solitary confinement?

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Further reading

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