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Solitary Confinement: what is it and what are its effects?

28th April 2016

The Guardian newspaper, in their series on solitary confinement, describe what it is; what the conditions are like; what its effects are; and provide an online virtual reality experience of life in solitary confinement so you can replicate the experience for yourself. 

Solitary confinement is the practice of isolating people in closed cells for 22-24 hours a day, with virtually no human contact, for periods of time that can range from days to decades in some parts of the world. Few prison systems, including Ireland, actually use the term ‘solitary confinement’, however. As the practice may be done for punitive, disciplinary or (supposedly) protective reasons, the names vary. Instead, phrases like ‘segregation’, ‘on protection’ or ‘loss of all privileges’ are more common to Ireland. But whatever the terminology, the practice involves a deliberate effort to limit social contact for a determinate or indeterminate period of time.   

Life in solitary confinement means up to 24 hours a day in a cell, with the exception of one hour outside for exercise alone. Within these cells, people live in enforced idleness, denied the opportunity to work or attend prison programmes. Terms of solitary confinement are often handed down with little or no oversight – prison officials serve as the prosecutor, judge and the jury.

The psychological pressures brought on by this kind of imprisonment can produce serious (and even irreversible) damage to a person’s mental health. One Guardian article explains that “solitary confinement induces a psychiatric disorder characterised by hypersensitivity to external stimuli, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficits, obsessive thinking, paranoia, and a litany of other physical and psychological problems. Psychological assessments of men in solitary confinement… indicated high rates of anxiety, nervousness, obsessive rumination, anger, violent fantasies, nightmares, trouble sleeping, as well as dizziness, perspiring hands and heart palpitations”  

These damaging effects brought on by solitary confinement can be immediate and increase the longer the confinement lasts and the more indeterminate it is. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (also known as the ‘CPT’) recommend that the maximum length of time that anyone should be kept in solitary confinement is 14 days as after this period the psychological damage can be so great as to be irreversible.

According to the most recent data available (April 2016), 85 prisoners in Ireland are being held in some form of isolated confinement, including 38 in Mountjoy Prison alone. The length of solitary confinement in Ireland can last from a few days to many months. In particular, Ireland has received repeated criticism for many years from the CPT for its use of the punishment of ‘loss of all privileges’, which has resulted in prisoners being held in conditions akin to solitary confinement for up to 56 days. 

To read more about Solitary Confinement and it's effects, click here.

To read/listen the testimonies of former prisoners who experienced solitary confinement, click here.

For the virtual experience of solitary confinement, click here.

Learn more