Solitary confinement has significant physical and mental ramifications for those detained in correctional facilities. Despite these consequences, solitary confinement practices are used routinely within Australia, violating international human rights obligations (particularly those under the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture). Solitary confinement is the isolation of a person in a cell for at least 22 hours a day without meaningful human contact. During isolation periods, detained individuals often have little or no access to natural light, fresh air, or human contact. Restrictions are typically imposed on their ability to access work and education programs and reductions are placed on normal privileges such as visiting, phone calls, or television access. Solitary confinement can severely and permanently damage the mental health of individuals without any prior history of mental illness, as well as severely exacerbate existing mental illnesses of those subject to confinement. Adverse effects can occur within seven days but can also be irreversible, particularly after prolonged periods.
Solitary confinement is a direct breach of Australia’s commitment to OPCAT, which seeks to reduce the likelihood of prisoner mistreatment and establish mechanisms to ensure that conditions and practices within detention facilities comply with international human rights obligations. The Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment stated that the mental and physical suffering or humiliation that occurs from solitary confinement amounts to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, which is prohibited by OPCAT. Our report on Solitary Confinement (above) outlines in more detail the extent of confinement practices as a breach of the Protocol.
Purpose of Solitary Confinement
Solitary confinement is used as a management tool in an effort to:
1) Ensure prison safety and restrict incarcerated persons from being a threat to others.
2) Maintain good order and management of the prison.
3) Deter negative behaviour with the threat of discipline.
4) Isolate prisoners at risk of self-harm
State legislation outlines the various uses of solitary confinement while research has questioned the effectiveness of solitary confinement to ensure general prison safety, and as a means of punishment to deter negative behaviour.
An overwhelming body of evidence shows that solitary confinement inflicts extensive and often permanent physiological, neurological and physical damage. Physical health is jeopardised, given that psychological distress can manifest through physical symptoms or illness. Such is worsened by confinement conditions such as the lack of fresh air, natural light, exercise, and insufficient medical care. Solitary confinement has been observed to cause detrimental long-term mental health consequences due to its profound social and sensory deprivation. Even in the hypothetical absence of physical brutality or unhygienic conditions, emotional distress is inevitable, causing declines in mental functioning, as well as psychopathology including depersonalisation, hallucination and delusions. Additionally, solitary confinement exacerbates existing mental health issues, providing insufficient care, understanding and rehabilitation. The solitary confinement population experiences higher rates of homicide, suicide, and drug abuse, as well as high rates of recidivism after being released into the community.
Current Law and Existing Limitations
In Australia, there is limited and inconsistent regulation of solitary confinement. Each state confers broad discretion on the prison administration to make orders. There is a general lack of oversight and accountability often leading to solitary confinement being used as a punitive or behavioural tool rather than a last resort. Some state legislation allows for consecutive orders of solitary confinement to be made meaning detainees can spend months or years in these conditions, often without sufficient review. Our report outlines specific laws and case studies surrounding solitary confinement in further detail. Domestic legislation should reflect Australian obligations under international human rights treaties.
Given the intense physical and mental health abuses resulting from solitary confinement, as well as the significantly higher recidivism rate amongst the solitary confinement population, we demand the following:
- Alternative management processes – staff better trained at de-escalation, consideration for mental health issues, and dedicated de-escalation rooms for inmates to calm down and manage their emotions
- Social responses to safety issues – open discussions with disruptive inmates, identifying problems, creating collaborative plans for behaviour improvement and/or punishment
- Therapeutic housing as an alternative to solitary – allowing prisoners to live in small communities, taking responsibility for their daily life, learning new behaviours, and access to psychiatrists and psychologists, as well as education and employment opportunities
- Legal reform – the abolition of solitary confinement as a punishment, as well as for inmates with mental health risks, and restrictions around the use and length of solitary confinement in other cases
- Reintegration of prisoners – a focus on stress-reduction and therapeutic interventions, increased social interaction to ease transition back into the wider community
- Improving conditions within solitary – when all other options have been exhausted, solitary must only be applied according to clear, strict, and consistent criteria, with set time limits, a clear appeals procedure, access to lawyers and family, and adequate means to occupy the inmate’s time
Craig Haney, Restricting the Use of Solitary Confinement (2018).
Michelle Chen, ‘The Growing Fight Against Solitary Confinement’, (2020) The Progressive.
OPCAT in Victoria: A thematic investigation of practices related to solitary confinement of children and young people’, Victorian Ombudsman (2019).
Sharon Shalev, A Sourcebook on Solitary Confinement (2008).
The University of Queensland, Legal perspectives on solitary confinement in Queensland (2020).