Irish Penal Reform Trust

Human Rights Law Centre (Australia): Stopping Solitary Confinement

31st March 2020

The Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) in Australia has published 'Stopping Solitary Confinement', a submission to the Royal Commission into Violence, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability. The submission was accompanied by a succinct cover letter detailing the potential impact the use of solitary confinement during COVID-19 could have on prisoners with disabilities.

As prisons often respond to a public health crisis by increasing the use of solitary confinement along with similar restrictive practices, the HRLC has requested that the Royal Commission into Violence, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability of Australia investigate the extent of the use of these practices and how they impact those in prison during the COVID-19 pandemic. The HRLC notes the use of solitary confinement during this time is not the solution to preventing the spread of the virus. It is ineffective, as there are staff and others coming in and out of prisons. The submission raises the issue that people held in solitary confinement, particularly those with disabilities, are not able to easily alert prison staff if they develop symptoms of COVID-19, or if their condition worsens.

In its submission, the HRLC calls for the practice of solitary confinement to be banned. Solitary confinement has been shown to have enduring psychological effects, with studies indicating that suicide and self-harm are more common in solitary confinement than in the general prison population. There are also physiological effects associated with solitary confinement such as gastrointestinal issues, migraine headaches, poor appetite and weight loss.

Solitary confinement has a huge negative impact on health, particularly for people with a pre-existing psychosocial disability. In its submission, the over-representation of those with a disability in solitary confinement in Australian prisons is acknowledged, particularly those with a cognitive or psychosocial disability. There is however a lack of mental health support within the prison context along with a reduction in staffing numbers and training that enable staff to engage appropriately with those who have a disability.

The submission also outlines that restrictive practices such as solitary confinement can jeopardise public safety and have a negative impact on rehabilitation. 



  • The HRLC calls for the Royal Commission to find that prolonged solitary confinement can amount to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment and in some circumstances, torture for people with disabilities.
  • The HRLC calls for the Royal Commission to recommend to the States and Territory governments to "look at granting people with disability (who do not pose a specific and immediate risk to the physical safety of another person) leave from prison, on health-related grounds, for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic." The HRLC recommends that laws, policies and guidelines should be amended to prohibit the use of solitary confinement. Guidelines, law, and policies should use consistent terminology that clearly defines the exceptional circumstances in which solitary confinement may be used, with appropriate safeguards in place (e.g. separation as a last resort, setting non-extendable timeframes for how long a person can be separated for, requiring that a healthcare professional meets the individual before the separation). It should also include a requirement that the circumstances of the person are to be taken into account, including consideration of their disability, gender, race, age, cultural or sexual identity.
  • The HRLC calls for the development of and funding for a National Preventative Mechanism to conduct inspections of all places of detention, as required under OPCAT.


Read more:

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



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