Irish Penal Reform Trust

National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) Guidance: Isolation in detention

10th February 2017

Definition of Isolation

The physical isolation of individuals who are confined to cells or 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 seldom freely chosen and are greater than for the general detainee population (NPM 2017, p 1).

The NPM guidelines outline that 22 hours a day in confinement without meaningful interaction is considered solitary confinement. If this period of confinement extends to fifteen consecutive days this is classified as ‘prolonged solitary confinement’ and this confinement should then cease. Indefinite or prolonged solitary confinement should be prohibited. Furthermore, the guidelines suggest that solitary confinement should not be used for those with mental or physical disabilities ‘when their conditions would be exacerbated by such measures’. The NPM also highlight that prison administrations should also resolve situations where a person self-segregates.

The guidelines set out checks-and-balances that must be adhered to as well as information to be recorded and supplied to the prisoner when placing them on solitary confinement, during the period they are isolated (for example daily routine, healthcare, safeguards) and post-isolation/reintegration.

The guidelines make specific recommendations in relation to children placed in isolation or on solitary confinement. These guidelines highlight the specific needs and requirements that children have. They highlight that a child’s perception and/or experience of isolation or solitary confinement differs from that of an adult. An understanding of a child’s past and/or experiences for example histories of abuse should be taken into consideration where periods of isolation may re-traumatise the child. The principle of not using solitary confinement for punishment has greater significance in relation to children and the use of solitary confinement should never be accompanied by other punitive measures such as loss of privileges.

The guidelines put forward recommendations in relation to how a child in isolation should be cared for and considers: length of time in isolation, authorisation for extended periods of isolation, periods after which the isolation should be reviewed, record keeping and the care and understanding that must accompany the special needs of a child placed in isolation.

The guidelines also highlight the requirements of those observing a child in isolation, both those placed in isolation by staff and those who self-isolate. The guidelines require that both relevant professionals and families of those who are isolated are informed, with both respect to children who self-isolate and those who are placed on it, for periods over an hour. Periodic assessment and reassessment must be undertaken and contact made with the relevant interested parties as to any progress or need for further/alternative action to be taken.

Certain conditions must be met in relation to the daily routine of children and adults with special consideration to the needs of children, the impact isolation has on both children and adults, as well as the need for oversight and safeguards in relation to the different risks posed to both adults and children of prolonged exposure to isolation.

Key areas needing attention:

  • Children have different needs than adults and isolation can have an increased detrimental effect on children;
  • Those with physical disabilities and mental health issues should not be placed on isolation if doing such could exacerbate their condition;
  • Those who self-isolate must be observed on par with those who are placed on solitary confinement;
  • The family and appropriate professionals must be contacted when children on solitary confinement or who self-isolate have been isolated for over an hour;
  • Solitary confinement must never be used as a punishment for children;
  • Due diligence must be paid to principles of encouraging reintegration post-isolation and the prevention of repeat behaviour that could result in isolation/solitary confinement of all those experiencing isolation.

NPM Guidance: Isolation in detention

Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.



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