April 28, 2021 Editor

Opinion: Prolonged solitary confinement is torture. It’s time for all states to ban it.

Opinion by Tammie Gregg and Donna Lieberman

April 28, 2021 at 5:00 a.m. PDT

image above: Julie Lai for The Washington Post

WN: My wife Esther and I felt uniquely fortunate to have attended the Conference below:

CURE International Conference Costa Rica 2017

Over 40 prison reform advocates representing a dozen countries participated in CURE’s 7th International Conference on Human Rights and Prison Reform which was held in San José, Costa Rica, April 25-29, 2017.

The theme was the Mandela Rules, which were adopted unanimously in 2015 by the United Nations and named after former prisoner and South African President Nelson Mandela.   For more information on the Rules including a copy of these 122 Rules on 29 pages, click here.

They provide treatment of prisoners in the 21st Century and seek to transform imprisonment from wasted time to an opportunity for personal development. This results in substantially less crime.

You may also read a press release about it in my post here.

Please go to the highlighted article below, with excerpts. New York has done the right thing. May it reverberate across that nation and around the world!

As to Canada? This recent article by authors Linda Mussell, PhD Candidate, Political Studies, Queen’s University, Ontario and Marsha Rampersaud, PhD Candidate, Sociology, Queen’s University, Ontario in National Post tells the tragic, all-too-familiar story: Solitary confinement replaced by new system where one in 10 prisoners experience torture. We read:

In November 2019, structured intervention units (SIUs) officially replaced solitary confinement in Canada.

Prior to SIUs, solitary confinement operated through administrative segregation and disciplinary segregation. The new system claimed to add safeguards, mental health supports and provide prisoners with four hours outside their cells per day, including two hours of meaningful interaction. Despite being in place for over a year, recent data shows this system is a failure: one in 10 prisoners in SIUs experience torture.

It is crucial for corrections to respond to this human rights failure. As a socio-legal scholar and a critical policy analyst who studies carceral policy, we believe possible solutions include reducing the number of people confined in SIUs, hard caps on days permitted in SIUs, penalties and oversight. Our goal is to push for institutional accountability and transparency, which has long evaded corrections.

The current state of things

Criminologists Anthony Doob and Jane Sprott published a report in late February with data from the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) that revealed solitary confinement is still happening and some practices amount to torture.

For those confined to SIUs, data revealed that 79 per cent of prisoners did not receive the required four hours outside of their cells per day for over half their stay. Additionally, 56 per cent of prisoners did not receive the required two hours of meaningful interaction outside of their cells per day for over half their stay. There is no evidence these measures have improved.

The data also revealed that 28 per cent of SIU stays constitute solitary confinement, which means prisoners spent 22 or more hours per day in their cell without meaningful interaction. Further, under the Mandela Rules, 9.9 per cent of SIU stays constitute torture, which means solitary confinement for more than 15 days. While Canada helped develop the United Nations Convention Against Torture, it has not meaningfully complied.

This treatment is dire for prisoners. One of us has done research with Indigenous former prisoners and their family members, both published and forthcoming. From this research, a former prisoner shares:

“I was exposed to solitary confinement for three days straight, and it affected me minimally, but it makes me imagine as someone who is cognitively sound and able, how does this affect everyone else, you know what I mean? How does it affect people who have intergenerational trauma and come from these places of disproportion? To get incarcerated and then to come back, damaged, and there’s no support?”

This image of a prisoner, Abdou Hussain Saad Faleh, being tortured has become internationally infamous, eventually making it onto the cover of The Economist (see “Media coverage” below)–Wikipedia

We Westerners wilfully fool ourselves in imagining we have “enlightened” behaviours in relation to prisoners. We have in Canada, the U.S., multiple variations of Abu Ghraib. Dostoyevsky was right: the measure of any so-called “civilization” is our treatment of prisoners.

Just read the headlines of related stories in The Washingtlon Post:

Nora V. Demleitner: Gov. Northam should release some state prisoners

We Western “civilizations” in treatment of prisoners continue to fail at being such–most spectacularly! . . .

Defund the police as we know it, to be sure. Abolish prisons as we know them, too is the only humanitarian cry! You may read my recently posted and published essay: Restorative Justice: Peacemaking Not Warmaking; Transformative Justice: Penal Abolitionism Not Prison Reform, and several other related posts here.


Earlier this month, New York enacted a law affirming what medical experts, human rights advocates and survivors have been saying for years: Prolonged solitary confinement is torture.

With legislators’ passage of the Halt Solitary Confinement Act, New York became the first state to codify the United Nations’ Nelson Mandela rules, which ban the use of solitary confinement after 15 consecutive days. This is incredible progress for New York, but work cannot stop there. Banning torture in any one state is simply not enough. It’s barely a beginning.

The United States has long been an extreme global outlier in the use of solitary confinement. Before the onset of covid-19, an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 people were held in solitary each day in U.S. jails and prisons — a number approximately equal to or greater than the total prison populations of many large countries, including France, Turkey and Spain. The pandemic led to a sharp increase in the use of solitary confinement in the United States, with more than 300,000 people held in these cruel and inhumane conditions as of June 2020.

Solitary confinement is an indictment of the United States’ criminal legal system, and its use is not an anomaly. Solitary is a microcosm of the ways U.S. prisons and jails are set up to dehumanize and traumatize people, without the slightest concern for their rehabilitation, their ability to reenter society, their well-being or the well-being of their families. The harms are particularly severe for people who are pregnant, people of color, individuals with disabilities — including mental illness or intellectual disabilities — young people, and incarcerated seniors, immigrants, and transgender people.

The facts are appalling. Despite making up just 18 percent of New Yorkers, Black people represented 58 percent of those held in solitary confinement in the state before passage of the Halt Act. The situation is hardly better in other states. In neighboring Connecticut, for instance, where Black and Hispanic or Latinx people make up just 29 percent of the population, they represented 85 percent of those held in solitary confinement as of 2019.

In many prisons and jails, trans people can be placed in solitary confinement against their will solely because of their gender identity. In some states, it is legal to place people in solitary as punishment for testing positive for HIV. And despite a vast body of research demonstrating that solitary confinement is dangerous for people with mental illness, corrections officers around the United States continue to hold people with mental illness in solitary confinement for months and years at a time.

Please click on: Prolonged solitary confinement is torture

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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.