Solitary Confinement: A Necessary Evil?

Posted On September 2, 2021

Solitary confinement is a form of punishment inflicted on inmates. This punishment has been criticized by many due to the effects this has on the inmates. For this reason, the UN and other associations have been proposing the abolishment or restriction of this type of punishment since it goes against the inmates’ human rights as well as hindering their rehabilitation and reintegration, which is ultimately the main goal of imprisonment.

Solitary confinement, also referred to as restrictive housing, consists of inmate lockdown, segregation, isolation as well as restriction of privileges as a form of punishment for any grievous misconduct committed during incarceration. This form of punishment has been on the increase to implement ‘get tough’ punishments on the inmates. Inmates in solitary confinement have limited interaction with other prisoners, and must sleep, eat, and make use of toilet facilities in the same cell they are confined in. Unfortunately, most of the times these ‘rooms’ lack windows, leaving these inmates with only the internal lighting provided to them by the prison. Time in solitary confinement can reach up to 23 hours daily, limiting the interaction with others for just 1 hour. Apart from that, contact with family members is restricted despite the fact that contact increases prospects of successful rehabilitation. Chapter 9 of the Laws of Malta states that an inmates can only undergo solitary confinement if found medically healthy and that confinement should not exceed 15 days, as per the UN Nelson Mandela Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

Despite the implementation of this punishment all over the world, solitary confinement has given rise to numerous debates on whether this form of reprimand is morally right and effective, and whether or not it is of detriment to the inmates rather than productive. Even with studies demonstrating that people advocate for this form of punishment, others criticize it. Some people believe that confinement helps achieve order in prisons and ensures safety for the management and the inmates themselves. However, others criticize it due to the effects this punishment has, both on the mental and physical health. Research indicates that these problems include anxiety and depression, anger, panic attacks, memory and concentration problems, as well as suicide attempts among others. In fact, it was also found that after spending time in isolation, inmates find it difficult to cohabitate and communicate with other people. Physical health problems on the other hand include heart problems, loss of appetite, lethargy, and weight loss amongst others, which can increase the risk of serious health conditions.

The United Nations 2016 report found that many countries implement solitary confinement as a means of punishment. Even so, each country has its own reasons for imposing confinement on prisoners. Some countries impose it to mitigate violence that has occurred, or to protect inmates who are not safe with the rest of the prison population. Other countries impose confinement for even the smallest of offences as well as to manage prisoners that are considered difficult by the management.

For these reasons, over the years laws have been enacted with regards to solitary confinement. The Nelson Mandela Rules, which were passed as a form of guidance for prisons around the world, ban long-term solitary confinement and confinement for people with disabilities. It is suggested that this method of punishment should only be used when all other methods are exhausted. The limited use of solitary confinement is also recommended by the American Public Health Association since it does not achieve the intended outcomes but worsens the problems rather than solving them. In fact, the UN Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners states that the abolishment and restriction of solitary confinement should be encouraged and implemented. This is because, even though inmates are being deprived of their liberty, they are not to be deprived of their human rights and essential freedoms which are essential for effective rehabilitation and reintegration.

The idea of imprisonment is to rehabilitate prisoners and equip them with the skills necessary so that when they are released back into society they would not revert back to their criminal past. The idea of confinement hinders the rehabilitative process due to the psychological problems developed during confinement. Therefore how can we expect prisoners to reintegrate back into society, if this punishment remains ongoing?

Written by Leo Ghorishi


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