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Excessive use of solitary confinement in prisons around the world is becoming an increasing concern.

Some form of short-term isolation from the rest of the prison population is used almost everywhere as punishment for breaches of prison discipline. However, many states use solitary confinement more routinely and for longer periods of time. In the United States, for example, it is estimated that 80,000-100,000 individuals are being held in some form of isolation – and the US is not alone.

States justify their use of solitary confinement in a number of different ways. It may be used as disciplinary punishment for convicted prisoners, to protect vulnerable prisoners or considered to help prison staff to ‘manage’ certain individuals. It is used to isolate a detainee during the pre-trial stage of investigation, often as part of coercive interrogation, and it can be used to lock away prisoners who have – or are perceived to have – mental illnesses.

While there is no universally agreed definition of solitary confinement – often also called ‘segregation’, ‘isolation’, ‘lockdown’ or ‘super-max’ – it is commonly understood to be the physical isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day, and allowed only minimal meaningful interaction with others.

Contact with family or visitors is often restricted or denied altogether, despite the fact that contact with family in particular, has been shown to be an important factor in successful rehabilitation.

Medical research shows that the denial of meaningful human contact can cause ‘isolation syndrome’, the symptoms of which include anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, paranoia, psychosis, self-harm and suicide. Prolonged isolation can destroy a person’s personality and their mental health and its effects may last long after the end of the period of segregation.

Solitary confinement increases the risk of torture or ill-treatment going unnoticed and undetected, and it can in itself constitute torture and ill-treatment, in particular where it is prolonged or indefinite.

Any form of isolation should be used only in very exceptional circumstances, as a last resort, for as short a time as possible, and with appropriate procedural safeguards in place. Where solitary confinement is used, prison regimes must ensure that prisoners have meaningful social contact with others, for example by: raising the level of staff-prisoner contact; allowing access to social activities with other prisoners and more visits; arranging in-depth talks with psychologists, psychiatrists, religious prison personnel and volunteers from the local community; maintaining and developing relationships with family and friends; and by providing meaningful in cell and out of cell activities.

Key facts

Contrary to popular belief, solitary confinement is not reserved only for the most dangerous prisoners. Often it is imposed to isolate detainees during the pre-trial stage of investigation, including as part of coercive interrogation. Solitary confinement for pre-trial detainees has, for example, been part of Scandinavian prison practice for many years. It is also used to lock away prisoners with – or who are perceived to have – mental illnesses.

The routine use of solitary confinement has been growing, and is becoming an increasingly common feature of high-security and ‘super-max’ prisons designed to hold prisoners who are deemed high-risk or difficult to control. In the United States, for example, an estimated 80,000-100,000 individuals are being held in ‘restricted housing’ – forms of housing involving a substantial amount of isolation – and these units are becoming more common elsewhere too.

Many countries use prolonged periods of solitary confinement or semi-isolation for those serving a life sentence, often separating them from the rest of the prison population for the entirety of their sentence. In countries still using the death penalty, and in those where it was only recently abolished, death row prisoners are also typically held in strict solitary confinement.

The UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty, and the Bangkok Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners, absolutely prohibit the use of solitary confinement for children and pregnant women, women with infants and breastfeeding mothers in prison respectively. The Istanbul Statement on the use and effects of solitary confinement explicitly recommends that solitary confinement should not be applied to death row and life-sentenced prisoners. The UN 
Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners state that efforts to abolish solitary confinement as a punishment, or to restrict its use, should be undertaken and encouraged.

The revised UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules) state that ‘Imprisonment and other measures which result in cutting off an offender from the outside world are afflictive by the very fact of taking from the person the right of self-determination by depriving him of his liberty. Therefore the prison system shall not, except as incidental to justifiable segregation or the maintenance of discipline, aggravate the suffering inherent in such a situation.’ (Rule 3). They define solitary confinement as ‘confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact’. Beyond an absolute prohibition of its indefinite or prolonged use (in excess of 15 days), the 
Rules state that ‘solitary confinement shall be used only in exceptional cases as a last resort, for as short a time as possible and subject to independent review, and only pursuant to the authorization by a competent authority’. Furthermore, they call on measures to alleviate the potential detrimental effects of separated confinement for the prisoners concerned.

In his report to the UN General Assembly in 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture recommended a ban on prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement as a punishment or extortion technique. Such treatment runs contrary to the prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment and is a ‘harsh’ measure, undermining the goals of rehabilitation, the primary aim of a criminal justice system.

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