In many prisons across Europe, the Americas and Oceania, a cell-based infrastructure meant that such measures effectively enforced a regime of prolonged solitary confinement as defined by the UN Nelson Mandela Rules on almost entire prison populations.
The impact of solitary confinement on mental and physical health has been well documented, and new research published over the past year has reiterated that people who have been subjected to it can have long-lasting effects. In the US, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that approximately 25 per cent of convicted detainees and 35 per cent of those in pre-trial detention jails who had spent 30 days or longer in solitary confinement during the previous year had symptoms of serious psychological distress. Despite this, figures released show that in June 2020 at least 300,000 people in US prisons had been placed in solitary due to the pandemic which was an increase of around 500 per cent from previous levels. In some cases, this involved housing people in cells which had previously been used for punitive isolation but had closed as part of efforts to reform solitary confinement.
Many systems retained such regimes of solitary confinement, or at least measures where people were isolated, quarantined or confined in groups, for weeks and months. Blanket policies were implemented due to the inability to test detainees (and staff), shortage in staffing and difficulty maintaining social distancing in overcrowded prisons.
A common measure globally was to place people newly admitted to prison, and those who had tested positive, in solitary confinement.
In some cases, like in Botswana, people were placed in solitary confinement as a condition before release or after returning from hospital as in Turkey. A common measure globally was to place people newly admitted to prison, and those who had tested positive, in solitary confinement. To cater for the demand of singular or smaller cells some countries converted existing facilities like in Namibia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, or built new facilities (deemed temporary) as seen in England. In other places, including Egypt and the US, solitary confinement was used also as a punishment where detainees shared news or protested about COVID-19 measures.
Criticism of the massive increase in the use of solitary confinement as a response to COVID-19, including by PRI and other international bodies, focused on a number of concerns. Many of the regimes did not have a sufficient legal basis or measures to mitigate the impact of isolation. Decisions around isolation were and continue to be frequently taken without input from medical experts and failed to assess or consider alternative preventive and response measures.
In Norway, the Ombudsman found that while the purpose of placing up to 70 per cent of detainees in solitary confinement was legitimate as an infection control measure, it did not have sufficient legal basis. They also found that there had been insufficient evaluation of less intrusive measures resulting in prolonged use of solitary confinement. In Argentina, international bodies joined the Prisoners Ombudsman’s Office denouncing an order by the penitentiary system which allowed for detainees to be held in solitary confinement for 23 hours per day for between 60 to 95 days. Such measures were commonly implemented and went far beyond the threshold of prolonged solitary confinement as defined in the UN Nelson Mandela Rules which is prohibited regardless of the official reason given for its use.
Other regimes attracted criticism both in terms of purpose and grounds. Measures in place in Canada’s federal facilities were criticised by watchdogs for failing to distinguish between medical isolation, applicable to people who test positive or show symptoms, and quarantine where there may have been exposure to COVID-19. Analysis from the University of California San Francisco’s programme AMEND, highlighted the ineffectiveness of making such a distinction, noting that solitary confinement can increase transmission due to its impact on deterring people from reporting symptoms or seeking treatment. Furthermore, cells (especially those used for solitary confinement) can often be small with poor air circulation.
Aside from COVID-19 related measures, solitary confinement remains common practice in many states despite overwhelming evidence of the harms it causes. Excessive use and degrading treatment or conditions for people in detention remains commonplace in a large number of countries. Discriminatory application of solitary confinement continues to be of concern in many countries. For example, in New Zealand a December 2020 report found that women were segregated at a far higher rate than men and minority groups were also more likely to end up in solitary confinement.
In 2020, to limit and regulate the use of solitary confinement and separation of detainees in Europe, the revised set of European Prison Rules adopted by the Council of Europe set out significant new guidance (see Revision of the European Prison Rules). In the US state of New York, a bill passed in March 2021 prohibiting solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days, or 20 days total in any 60-day period. It would also ban its use for those with mental or physical disabilities, pregnant women, those in the first eight weeks of post-partum recovery, and people under 21 or older than 55 years.
See a complete list of references in the full report, Global Prison Trends 2021.