Now is the time to abolish solitary confinement: Covid-19, prisons and torture

By Emmanuel Onapa:


Across the United Kingdom, prison inmates are dealing with the extreme pressure of coronavirus running rampant in their living spaces. With inmates more likely to catch Covid-19 due to the cramped living conditions that characterise prison facilities in Britain, both their physical and mental health is at risk. Our government continues to exacerbate these horrendous conditions, as many prisoners are left abandoned in solitary confinement.


Solitary confinement in England and Wales is often referred to as ‘segregation’ with inmates being sent to ‘segregation units’ or, in other words - prisons within prisons. A shocking report from the Criminal Justice Joint Inspection (CJI) uncovered that 4 in 5 prisoners in the UK spent less than two hours outside their prison cells during the first initial lockdown, which started in March and lasted until July. That's four months of isolation, distress and deprivation. We are now still in our third national lockdown, so one can only imagine the current despair inmates face. From our own homes, we have all witnessed the appalling impact lockdown has had on our mental health. But imagine being an inmate, confined in a cell and limited to four walls - day in and day out, for 23 hours a day.

We live in a country that blatantly disregards the universal human rights that it participated in establishing. Under the United Nations Nelson Mandela Rules (43, 44 and 45), holding an imprisoned person in solitary confinement for more than 15 days amounts to torture. The hypocrisy, lack of regard for human dignity and absence of empathy and compassion is evident. Whilst political leaders in Britain vote for unjust and violent military interventions overseas, under the banner of fighting for human rights (as they did in the Iraq war), they fail to preserve their own citizens’ human rights.

Where are the universal human rights when it comes to imprisoned people? Where is the justice in the criminal justice system when it comes to inmates? The pandemic is exposing the deep-rooted flaws within this country's most powerful institutions. To fix the cruelty and address the human rights violations that are unfolding, real and radical change must be implemented to challenge this status quo.


Solitary confinement first became an established practice in the 1700s when religious groups, such as the Quakers, argued that isolating individuals in their cell with a bible would result in repentance and rehabilitation. Not only has this approach failed, but it has been proven to have catastrophic consequences. Despite this, solitary confinement is still used as a blanket measure for tackling the broader issues that plague the British criminal justice system. Its use in modern society still leads to anxiety, depression, psychosis and suicidal thoughts, to name a few. Solitary confinement can also impact physical health and increase their risk of conditions, including chronic pain, vision loss, and fractures.

Over the last year, as a result of the Covid-19 restrictions within prisons, solitary confinement has now become the norm for most prisoners in England and Wales. The use of solitary confinement and segregation units must be abolished. Not just during the Covid-19 pandemic, but forever. This punitive and inhumane method of treatment in prisons undermines the rehabilitation process that the criminal justice system claims to want to achieve. Instead, the constant use of solitary confinement is not only causing inmates to leave prison with exacerbated mental and physical health challenges but also effectively legalising state torture. This is brutal and unjustifiable.


Before, segregation units were actively being used to punish inmates, even before the pandemic laid the prison system's sins bare for all to see. The report from the Council of Europe's Committee for Prevention of Torture revealed that at the time of visit in 2019, the Cookham Wood young offender institution held six young boys in segregation units. One had been in the segregation unit for almost two months and was awaiting a psychiatric assessment. Another young inmate spent a month, and two others spent a month and a half in segregation units. Of the 178 placements in segregation units between May 2018 and April 2019, 47 had lasted more than 14 days. This is not criminal justice; this is torture. The sinister nature of segregation units builds on the layers of trauma that already impact vulnerable young people before their imprisonment, which has long-term consequences, even following their release.


We need a system that genuinely considers the humanity of imprisoned people a system that protects and serves all. We must end - once and for all - this cruel policy that brings about more pain than healing, by abolishing segregation units for good. Torture can never be considered a form of justice.

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