Solitary Confinement in the UK: A Closer Look at an Ineffective System


The practice of solitary confinement, in which prisoners are restricted to individual cells for 22 to 24 hours a day with minimal human contact, is a highly controversial and contentious issue.

Whilst the use of solitary confinement is often justified through appeals to prisoner safety or order, the adverse effects on the health of those who are isolated as well as the potential for its misapplication renders the practice dangerous and potentially inhumane. The UK must take steps to ensure that as few people as possible are placed in solitary confinement in the future, and guarantee that no children or vulnerable adults are subject to this potentially destructive practice.

Although American prisons are estimated to hold between 80,000 and 100,000 people in some form of isolation, solitary confinement is in limited use in the UK. The UK prison system has a total segregation capacity of 1,586 cells, including 54 cells in ‘close supervision centres’ designed to house the most dangerous inmates in the nation.

Sizes and conditions of solitary units vary wildly, with reports of damaged panels, broken glass, dirt and bodily fluids are mixed with accounts of clean, light and comfortable cells . Nevertheless, even one instance of the kind described by several prisoners held in solitary confinement is unacceptable.

With small barred windows and only a bed, toilet and wash basin to fill many cells, one prison manager called even the best units “austere”. Whilst in solitary confinement, some prisoners receive only half an hour outside their cell to exercise, a period that falls short of the UN’s recommended minimum of 1 hour.

The UN’s Mandela rules also advise that indefinite and/or prolonged solitary confinement should be prohibited, and that no prisoner “with physical or mental disabilities” that would be exacerbated by solitary confinement should be subject to it. Sadly, this reality is not reflected in the UK’s current prison system.

Solitary confinement may be used punitively within prisons, with a maximum of 21 days for adults and 10 days for young adults. Other uses of solitary confinement, however, have no formal time limits placed upon them; solitary confinement may be used for an indefinite period (with weekly reviews) to ensure Good Order or Disciple in prison, for example, a principle known as the GOOD rule.

The vagueness of this principle betrays its potential for abuse; some inmates have reportedly been isolated for drug use or dirty protests, hardly an appropriate means of treating addiction and potential mental health problems.

Inmates too have found ways to use solitary confinement to make their voices heard, or simply to avoid pervasive violence in prisons. More than a third of prisoners interviewed by the Prison Reform Trust in 2015 for  the study Deep Custody said they had deliberately engineered a move into solitary confinement.

The most common reason given for this act was to pressure the prison into transferring them, but other reasons included avoiding paying debts to other prisoners, not wanting to share a cell, and avoiding drug use and violence on the wings.

In certain cases, solitary confinement may be used simply as a means of separating vulnerable prisoners from those who might harm them, or monitoring those who might hurt themselves. Serial killer Robert Maudsley recently made headlines after spending 39 years (14,235 consecutive days) in solitary confinement; he was separated from the general prison population after murdering three inmates.

Those awaiting transfer to hospital under the Mental Health Act may be held in solitary confinement to isolate them from means of self-harm, an act that despite its well-meaning intent has nevertheless been shown to  exacerbate mental health issues.

The combination of social isolation, reduced environmental stimulation, and general lack of freedom enforced through solitary confinement contribute to an increased risk of anxiety, depression, self-harm, difficulty in concentration, anger, and insomnia. Over half of those interviewed in the Deep Custody study reported experiencing three or more of these issues.

The use of solitary confinement in young offenders institutions is denying young adults access to education and the chance to mix with other inmates.

Recently, the UK High Court ruled that the Article 8 rights of a 16 year-old boy with “significant mental health problems”, known as AB, were breached by his solitary confinement for 23 and a half hours a day at Feltham young offenders institution.

Whilst misconduct in prison should not be met with apathy, total isolation even for short periods fails to encourage the rehabilitation of prisoners, nor is there conclusive evidence that it discourages prisoner-on-prisoner violence. Conversely,  in certain American prisons the closure of segregation units has preceded a reduction in levels of violence.

If prisons aim to be centres of rehabilitation, deterrence, and punishment, then solitary confinement fails in each of these goals. Due to the harm caused by this system, its usage must be reduced to the most extreme of cases. The UK must endeavour to prevent any young person or vulnerable adult from being placed in such conditions, lest they be irrevocably harmed by a disproportionate and ineffective punishment.

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