Background - Solitary Confinement and Isolation

Prisoners in a number of countries are being in solitary confinement or isolation. The practice is particularly widespread in the USA.

"Supermax" prisons in the USA impose extreme isolation on their prisoners. Meals are passed through holes in the cell doors. Prisoners are under constant CCTV monitoring. Human contact - even with prison officers - is minimal. Prisoners spend 23 hours a day in their cells, with an hour per of exercise, still in isolation.

It should be obvious to anyone that the psychological torment endured by these prisoners amounts to torture. The threat of this torture is used to elicit information, very likely false. Confronted with the likelihood of a long jail term in isolation, people accused of serious crimes enter into plea bargains: they agree to plead guilty to a lesser offence and, very often, to testify against other people.

Isolation is not a rarity in the US prison system. The Federal Supermax prison at Florence, Colorado has a capacity of 490 prisoners, but tens of thousands of people are held in extreme isolation elsewhere in the US. Figures are unreliable. Census data for the year 2000 shows over 25,000 people in prisons described as Supermax. The total number of prisoners being held in long-term isolation is, on one estimate, over 90,000. Isolation units across the US constitute a torture archipelago that should be off-limits to any jurisdiction that respects human rights. There is a small but growing campaign in the US to end this abomination.

Prisoners in other jurisdictions around the world also suffer prolonged solitary confinement. A report published in October 2008 by the UN's Special Rapporteur on Torture named China, Denmark, Georgia, Indonesia, Jordan, Mongolia, Nigeria, Paraguay as well as the United States as giving cause for concern. In the same year, the UN Committee Against Torture expressed concern over prolonged isolation in "supermax" facilities in Australia. In 2009 the Committee expressed concern over the use of solitary confinement in Israeli prisons.

  • Ahmad v UK - a Green Light for solitary confinement? The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled on 10 April 2012 that Babar Ahmad and four other men can be extradited from Britain to the US to face terrorism charges. It rejected arguments that their rights would be violated as a result of the rigorous jail conditions they would be subjected to if convicted.
  • UK must intervene to stop the torture of Bradley Manning Following the revelation that US army whistleblower Bradley Manning is a UK citizen as well as a US citizen, Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC) says that the British Government must demand that the US immediately cease its torture by solitary confinement of Manning.
  • The inhumane conditions of Bradley Manning's detention by Glenn Greenwald - "Manning has been subjected for many months without pause to inhumane, personality-erasing, soul-destroying, insanity-inducing conditions of isolation similar to those perfected at America's Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado: all without so much as having been convicted of anything."
  • Solitary Watch - a collaboration between journalists aimed at bringing the widespread use of solitary confinement and other forms of torture in U.S. prisons out of the shadows and into the light of the public square.
  • Stopmax - campaign sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) - a Quaker group - which works to eliminate the use of isolation and segregation in US prisons
  • Stopmax Voices Voices of prisoners in solitary confinement in the US, published by the Stopmax campaign to stop prison isolation and related forms of torture
  • Hellhole by Atul Gawande - The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Is this torture? (the New Yorker, 30 March 2009)
  • Supermaxed - about Supermax and maximum security prisons
  • Istanbul statement on the use and effects of solitary confinement. Adopted on 9 December 2007 at the International Psychological Trauma Symposium, Istanbul. (pdf document)
  • Solitary Confinement - Website dedicated to examining the practice of solitary confinement in its various forms.
  • Sourcebook on solitary confinement by Sharon Shalev
  • Manuel de référence l’isolement cellulaire
  • Abolish control units - US campaign to shut down Control Units - isolation cells within prisons where people are confined to small cells for long periods of time
  • Supermax - a clean version of hell - CBS report
  • - Black Panther Robert Hillary King - autobiography From the Bottom of the Heap
  • The Angola 3 - Angola 3 - three innocent men held in solitary confinement in the USA for almost 4 decades for trying to speak out against inhumane treatment and racial segregation.
  • Angola 3 News - an official project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3
  • The Real Cost of Prisons Project - seeks to broaden and deepen the organizing capacity of prison/justice activists working to end mass incarceration