"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"
UN Nelson Mandela Rules
Also known as segregation, isolation, separation or lockdown, a practice that exists inside super-maximum prisons or Secure Housing Units (SHU), solitary confinement is inflicted on people in various incarnations around the world. INN defines it per the Nelson Mandela Rules: the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact, for a time period in excess of 15 consecutive days. This definition is informed by studies showing that the effects of solitary may be irreversible after this period.
- In prisons all over the world, people are placed in segregation for minor and non-criminal infractions, such as “reckless eyeballing” of an official (USA) or not cleaning their cells (Mexico).
- In the supermax there are virtually no opportunities provided for recreation, education or substance abuse issues. Prisoners are generally allowed out of their cells for only one hour per day, but in some countries, like Thailand, only one hour per week is permitted.
- In Brazil five supermaximum prisons have recently been built, in a knee-jerk response to the escalating dangers of gang warfare within the prison system—a decision costing around $80 million to the taxpayer and thus draining public resources (at a rate of $120,000 per prisoner, per year). This cost will likely only increase, due to the fact that solitary confinement boosts, rather than reduces, recidivism rates. A Special Rapporteur appointed by the UN Human Rights Council presented to the Brazilian Supreme Court in June 2013 thus declared that “the use of the isolation system should be abolished” as a form of punishment, adding that “the Brazilian Special Disciplinary System may be considered, for several reasons, a violation of the international obligation of Brazil to abolish, in absolute terms, the practice of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”
- In New Zealand, the UN Subcommittee for the Prevention of Torture expressed grave concern about newly built cells at the Auckland Maximum Security prison, likening them to tin cans with little room for internal movement of any kind.
- In South Africa the 2013-2014 annual report of the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services revealed that 8,397 incarcerated people were held in isolation, with 23 cases of inhumane treatment cited.
- In Canada the use of solitary has been increasing. In Ontario, Canada, from October to December 2015, 1,383 incarcerated people were placed in segregation for 15 days or longer, according to the data provided to the Ontario Human Rights Commission by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. These practices target Indigenous prisoners at a higher rate because they are more likely to be classified maximum security and spend more time in segregation.
The practice of solitary confinement can be traced back to America in the 1820s, when it was believed to aid in rehabilitation; resounding research proves that it does anything but. Boston psychiatrist Stuart Grassian famously found that at least one-third of those in solitary developed acute psychosis and hallucinations, which he identified as symptoms of “SHU Syndrome”: social withdrawal, panic attacks, irrational rage, loss of impulse control, paranoia, severe and chronic depression, difficulties with concentration and memory, perceptual distortions.
- A 2014 study found that detainees in solitary confinement in New York City jails were nearly seven times more likely to harm themselves than those in general population; the effect was more pronounced for youth and people with mental illness.
- In one study of California’s prison system, researchers found that from 1999 to 2004 prisoners in solitary confinement accounted for nearly half of all suicides. In South Africa in 2017, two incarcerated men at Helderstroom Prison who were held in solitary confinement committed suicide within three months of each other.
- The permanently debilitating impact of solitary confinement has been formally recognized by former President Obama of the United States, who abolished the use of it for juveniles in the federal prison system.
- Aside from damaging the psychological health of its victims, the practice of solitary confinement is contrary to the principles of rehabilitation as found in such key international human rights instruments as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
- Solitary confinement increases crime: A 2006 study found that those who spent three months or more in solitary were more likely to reoffend and to commit a violent crime.
- A 2011 report compiled by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Cruel Punishment concluded that the application of solitary confinement for more than 15 days in and of itself constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, or even torture, and should therefore be prohibited.
- There have been successful efforts to reduce/outlaw the barbaric practice in the US, Norway, South Africa, Finland and Austria, in particular. The American Civil Liberties Union continues to lead a vibrant campaign calling for an end to solitary throughout the USA and has seen significant victories in states such as California and New York.