Penitentiary authorities around the world have increasingly turned to restrictive detention regimes such as solitary confinement to manage high risk detainees. What are the humanitarian consequences of this treatment in detention and how does it measure up with international law and standards?

In recent years, there has been an increase in the use of solitary confinement in detention places around the world. It may be because some detainees are considered dangerous, to facilitate interrogation, for punishment, as a consequence of their sentence, or even sometimes for their own safety. This raises the questions as to whether this and other restrictive detention regimes can really be considered part of the solution when it comes to managing high risk detainees, or whether such regimes may be part of the problem by aggravating anti-social behaviour and further destroying humanity and dignity.

A recent panel discussion at the Humanitarium in Geneva, organized on the occasion of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, took these questions as a foundation for a wider reflection on how to preserve humane treatment in high security settings. The event gathered experts in international law and criminology, as well as former hostage and humanitarian Terry Waite, who was also interviewed in the Humanitarian Law & Policy blog about his personal experience of solitary confinement.

Stopping isolation before it affects mental health

What does ‘solitary confinement’ actually mean? Sharon Shalev, a research associate at the University of Oxford, explained that the recently adopted Nelson Mandela Rules offer the first-ever definition of this practice in international human rights law, defining it as “the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact.” In essence, the practice implies that one person is confined to a cell where he or she will eat, sleep and spend the majority of each and every day and night alone.

If short term separation of a detainee from the general detained population may be an appropriate measure for maintaining order, safety and security within a place of detention, as Shalev emphasized, “duration is the crucial factor here”. “It may be alright for about a week, it’s peaceful”, she said, quoting a detainee who she had previously interviewed as part of her research, “but after that it just starts messing with your head.”

But what are the limits beyond which such separation becomes ill-treatment, or even torture, and should be prohibited? The Nelson Mandela Rules prohibit the use of solitary confinement for longer than 15 days, as well as indefinite solitary confinement. It also totally prohibit the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, pregnant women or women with infants and breastfeeding mothers and mentally ill persons. Below 15 days and for other categories, it should be used only in exceptional cases as a last resort, for as short a time as possible. The ultimate aim of separating an individual detainee must always remain to reintegrate him or her into the general population of detainees and detaining authorities must take all possible measures to minimize the harm done by isolation.

The worst scars are in the mind

Although solitary confinement has different effects on each detainee, depriving a detainee from contact with the outside world can be deeply damaging to their physical and mental well-being. In the words of Catherine Deman, head of ICRC’s detention unit, “whatever the reason [for the recourse to solitary confinement], such an isolation can entail enormous suffering and can have serious humanitarian consequences”.

It is clearly not enough to only satisfy physiological functions, we also need to be able to use our senses, to be intellectually and affectually stimulated,” Deman stressed. “We all need to believe that we have a future and we need hope. Detainees held in solitary confinement are deprived of most of that, sometimes for a very long period of time. It may amount to ill-treatment, and in some cases, to torture.” Sharon Shalev concurred: “solitary confinement in and of itself and without any further mistreatment can seriously harm health and well-being,” adding that if people with already existing mental health problems are subject to solitary confinement, the effects can be catastrophic. “It is like placing an asthmatic in a place with no air to breathe,” Shalev said.

Tom Enger, Director and Head of Regulations and Security at the Norwegian Correctional Service, added that solitary confinement also noticeably increases the risk of suicide and, because of its artificial nature, offers very limited opportunities for rehabilitation.

Detention should not preclude meaningful human contact

Whether or not a detainee’s mental health is seriously jeopardized is strongly dependent on the quality of the stimuli and interactions he or she has with other human beings during isolation. Too often, interactions are limited to a few staff and stop at the strictly functional and necessary. “Having a chat, a banter, for me, more than anything else, is key to preserving the humanity of prisoners in solitary confinement,” Sharon Shalev argued.

This point was also taken up by Tom Enger, who underscored the importance of applying mitigating measures when using solitary confinement. “The cell doesn’t have to be a hole: it can have a normal bed equal to an ordinary cell… If there is adequate safety, we have to establish a routine where staff […] invite the persons to join activities with them or establish a specific resource team that stimulates the prisoners to take part in activities, hobbies, conversations, reading and more.”

It was in this context that Terry Waite, president of Y Care International and of Hostage UK, offered a chilling account of his time in captivity during the civil war in Lebanon from 1987-1991, the majority of which he spent in solitary confinement with no meaningful human contact. To survive and recognizing the danger this situation posed to his mental health, Waite began writing a book in his head without pencil or paper. “By writing, by keeping myself mentally alive, there was a way in which I could survive.” Referring to extreme situations where detainees are put in complete isolation for long periods of time, Waite forcefully concluded that “we are literally destroying them on their feet. That is cruel and inhuman punishment. It really is torture. And every person who stands up for anything that’s decent ought to condemn it.

The event “Solitary confinement: How to preserve humanity in high security settings” took place on 27 June 2016 at the Humanitarium in Geneva and was part of the conference series on “Generating respect for the law”. The event also featured the short documentary “Our Voices are Rarely Heard” by filmmaker Cali Bondad and reporter Gabrielle Canon.

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