In this guest blog, Louise Finer, Coordinator of the UK’s National Preventative Mechanism, explains the findings from the NPM’s review of ‘isolation’ and ‘solitary confinement’ in detention. The NPM’s monitoring uncovered widespread practices that met the UN Mandela Rules internationally agreed definition of solitary confinement.
On 1 December 2015, the UK’s National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) published the findings from its review of isolation and solitary confinement  in detention. This is the first ever national account of the use of isolation and solitary confinement in every type of custody across the UK.
The 20 member bodies of the UK NPM monitor establishments holding immigration detainees, children, remand and convicted prisoners, police and military detainees and those held under mental health legislation. Across these types of custody, the NPM identified a wide range of formal and informal isolation practices, and a number of instances where the isolation amounted to solitary confinement.
In prisons across the UK, there are a number of grounds on which prisoners can be isolated, including to maintain ‘good order or discipline’, in their own interests or to protect the safety of others and as a punishment. Formal procedures govern these forms of isolation. Specific units such as ‘close supervision centres’ also keep prisoners away from the mainstream population on the basis of administrative rules.
Although the UK is not known for its use of solitary confinement in detention, it is striking that the NPM’s monitoring work uncovered widespread practices that did in fact meet the internationally agreed definition (most recently set out in the UN Mandela Rules). The practices we identified across detention settings that isolated detainees or amounted to solitary confinement were known by a wide range of names, including: separation, care and separation, unemployed disruptive, single unlock, loss of association, losses, basic for violence, basic, group separation, low stimulus, time out, intensive care suite, therapeutic isolation, single-person wards, enforced segregation, removal from association, temporary confinement separation and reintegration, close supervision centres, special cells, confined to room, duty of care.
NPM monitoring found a wide variation in the conditions in which prisoners were isolated, as well as the regime they had access to. In some cases, conditions in segregation units were good, but too often we found exercise yards that were cage-like or provided no view of the outside that was not filtered through fences or razor wire. Access to exercise, showers and phones was often inconsistent and in one instance only provided three times a week.
One of our most striking findings was that alongside the isolation of prisoners under formal rules, there were many instances in which prisoners on a ‘basic’ regime or who were unemployed were locked in their cells for such long periods that this met international definitions of solitary confinement. In one prison 600 out of 1600 prisoners who were unemployed received only one hour out of their cell each day. Staff shortages in many prisons led to lockdowns or limited the access prisoners had to a regime, leading to long periods of isolation in their cells.
Our review also looked at the effectiveness of procedures that should make sure prisoners at risk of self-harm or suicide are not put in segregation units. We were disappointed to find many instances where we did not think the ‘exceptional circumstances’ that justify isolation of a vulnerable prisoner had been met. The informal isolation to which many prisoners were subjected means the potential for harm, including for vulnerable prisoners, was not fully considered.
Children in custody
NPM members also examined the isolation of children in custody. We found a general improvement in the decision-making and monitoring of isolation practices in small custodial units (Secure Training Colleges and Secure Children’s Homes). Efforts were often – but not always – made to ensure children still had access to education when isolated. In the larger Young Offenders Institutions (YOIs), we found some unacceptable conditions as well as many instances of informal isolation which lasted for more than 22 hours a day and sometimes for several weeks at a time.
Prisons and YOIs we examined in our review rarely planned or managed the reintegration of formally isolated prisoners to the main establishment in such a way that would support prisoners through the transition. In many instances, prisoners in isolation or separated from the main prison told NPM members that they did not know what they would have to do to return to their normal location. Many examples from the health sector demonstrated a better understanding of approaches to integrating detainees back to normal regimes, including by preparing advance statements and holding post-incident debriefs. In turn, these contributed to organisational learning for the future.
NPM members also monitor police custody, where isolation is the norm and justified by the fact that detainees need to be held alone while questioned about offences they might have committed, or while other evidence is being gathered. NPM members identified a need to mitigate the effects of isolation. A ‘request culture’ meant that detainees often did not access fresh air, showers or reading material because they did not know it was available to them. In one instance, where a group of immigration detainees including at least two members of one family were held in police cells, we thought there was a case for allowing detainees to share a cell and this should have been explored.
Although efforts have been made to strengthen the procedures and safeguards for formal isolation across many forms of detention, NPM members identified too many instances where governance was poor and greater efforts to avoid isolation were warranted. It was of particular concern that the governance of isolation for children was still not robust enough, and that oversight processes did not shed light on the reasons for or address any disproportionate representation of detainees with certain ‘protected characteristics’ in isolation.
The adoption of the Mandela Rules by the UN General Assembly are a reminder of the need for strict safeguards against the misuse of solitary confinement, which should only be imposed in exceptional cases, as a last resort and for as short a time as possible.
This work forms part of a long-term project to strengthen the way all 20 members of the multi-body NPM monitor these issues. With the aim of preventing future ill treatment in detention, the NPM will draft monitoring guidelines that reflect its findings and adopt the standards set out in the Mandela Rules and other international documents, and contribute to strengthening policy and practice across detention settings.
Report and the NPM
Download the full report (pdf).
The UK’s National Preventive Mechanism, a torture prevention body is set up per the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture. For more information see: www.nationalpreventivemechanism.org.uk/
 The NPM working definition for isolation is: “The physical isolation of individuals who are confined to cells/rooms for disciplinary, protective, preventive or administrative reasons, or who by virtue of the physical environment or regime find themselves largely isolated from others. Restrictions on social contacts and available stimuli are greater than for the general detainee population.”
 The NPM working definition for solitary confinement is: “The physical isolation of individuals who are confined to cells/rooms for more than 22 hours a day. Meaningful contact with others is reduced to a minimum and there is a quantitative or qualitative reduction in stimuli. Available stimuli and occasional social contacts are seldom freely chosen, generally monotonous and often not empathetic.”
 Under the ‘Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme’, prisoners earn privileges if they demonstrate they are working towards their own rehabilitation, behave well and help others. It operates on four levels, and prisoners who have demonstrated insufficient commitment to rehabilitation and purposeful activity, or behaved badly and/or who have not engaged sufficiently with the regime to earn privileges at a higher level are placed on a ‘basic’ regime. See: https://www.justice.gov.uk/downloads/offenders/psipso/psi-2013/psi-30-2013-1.doc
About the author
Louise Finer works as Senior Policy Officer at Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and coordinates the UK’s National Preventive Mechanism. Prior to joining HMIP and the NPM she worked in a range of research, policy and advocacy roles for NGOs in the UK, US and South America. She has 15 years experience of strengthening and implementing human rights standards at national and international level.