Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

A Look into Solitary Confinement: Present and Future



Time to read

4 Minutes

Post by Sahng-Ah Yoo, a MSc student at the Centre for Criminology with research interests in international immigration policies, specifically in cross-country comparisons of detention and deportation programs. Before commencing her graduate studies at Oxford, she conducted research in the fields of psychology and law. She holds a BA in Psychology from Columbia University.

To some prisoners, it’s known as ‘Isolation’ and to others, ‘The Block.’ Prison administrators have called it the ‘Care and Separation Unit’ or ‘Special Handling Unit.’ Under the guise of different names, solitary confinement has lived a long life, from the dingy dungeons of medieval times to our modern supermax prisons. But what exactly is solitary confinement, how is it used, and should it still be used in the future?

Dr Sharon Shalev joined us for our third All Souls Criminology Seminar to help us tackle these difficult questions. An expert in the field of solitary confinement, she began by discussing what solitary confinement is. There is no universally agreed-upon definition of solitary confinement, but it’s commonly understood to be ‘the social and physical isolation of individuals who are confined to their cell for 22 hours or more a day.’

Earlier this year, the United Nations (UN) Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMR), (now the ‘Mandela Rules,’) were amended to reflect growing international concern over inhumane conditions of prisons, including solitary confinement. The revised Rules prohibited indeterminate or prolonged solitary confinement, and defined solitary confinement as confinement ‘without meaningful human contact.’ And at first glance, this definition does seem to address these concerns. With the addition of the phrase ‘meaningful human contact,’ the definition aims to prevent prisons from placing prisoners into situations that resemble solitary confinement (e.g., without social contact) and calling it ‘the norm.’ But Dr Shalev argues that this phrase may be too vague to be of any benefit, and could actually potentially reverse the intentions of the revision, allowing minimal contact between the prisoner and guards to suffice the ‘meaningful human contact’ condition, resulting in looser restrictions on the use of solitary confinement.

But let’s take a step back. Why do prisons use solitary confinement in the first place? And what are the effects of solitary confinement on prisoners that make it so harmful that the UN would rather avoid its use altogether?

Dr Shalev discussed how, when used as punishment, solitary confinement is imposed for a limited time and following a hearing. Prisoners viewed as dangerous, disruptive, or otherwise threatening to the ‘good order’ of the prison can also be placed in solitary confinement through an internal administrative process that has very little oversight. This can lead to stark human rights issues as is the case with the United States’ supermax prisons, as many as 25,000 individuals have been found to be spending 23 hours a day in tiny solitary confinement cells.              

We’re left with a situation in which prisons, a form of punishment in itself, are actively inflicting punishment that wasn’t part of a prisoner’s original sentence. The stakes of the prison’s role as punisher are heightened in light of the deep psychological scars and physical pain that solitary confinement can inflict on prisoners.

According to Dr Shalev, the psychological pains of imprisonment identified years ago by Gresham Sykes are made more acute in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement entails  three forms of isolation: social, physical, and psychological. By being deprived of all social relationships, ample physical room to move, sensory input, and autonomy, some prisoners can be left with reduced brain activity, high anxiety, cognitive disturbances, depression, paranoia, psychosis, perceptual distortions, and increased risk of self-harm and suicide.

In 2012, Anthony Graves, founder of Anthony Believes and exonerated former death row prisoner, spoke before a Senate hearing on his experiences with solitary confinement, explaining:

Solitary confinement―it breaks a man’s will to live and he deteriorates right in front of your eyes. He’s never the same person again. Then his mother comes to see him; she can’t touch him―she hasn’t touched him in years. And she watches as her son deteriorates in front of her eyes.

And, as the Special Rapporteur on Torture puts it:

The longer the duration of solitary confinement or the greater the uncertainty regarding the length of time, the greater the risk of serious and irreparable harm to the inmate that may constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment or even torture.

This becomes even more problematic since the revised rules of the UN SMR prohibit the use of prolonged solitary confinement for certain categories of prisoners ‘with mental or physical disabilities when their conditions would be exacerbated by such measures.’ This definition fails to grasp the generalized adverse effects of solitary confinement that psychological studies and personal narratives provide as evidence of the harrowing experiences that solitary confinement can ingrain in a person in both the short and long term.

And so, we reach our last question: should solitary confinement be used in the future? And if so, how? Dr Shalev made several recommendations. On the legal front, we should work towards a much more fixed, rigorous, and exact definition of solitary confinement that disqualifies juveniles and people with mental health issues outright. Part of this definition should also include an emphasis on the use of solitary confinement as a last resort, in very exceptional cases, with proper legal channels and oversight to appeal its administrative use in prisons. Second, prisons should work to create better reintegration processes post-confinement so that the prisoner can work through the trauma of solitary confinement with medical, psychological, and social help. Part of the trauma could be limited by offering confined prisoners with purposeful activities and more social engagement.

While Dr Shalev discourages an entirely nihilistic view of solitary confinement prison policy, her research is evidence of her belief that more work needs to be done in conjunction with policymakers and prison authorities to reduce the use of solitary confinement and mitigate its harmful effects. Recently, she has been working with Kimmett Edgar, Head of Research at the Prison Reform Trust, on exploring segregation units and close supervision centres in England and Wales. Findings from their study will be published by PRT Publishing in hard copy and on her website in the near future.