What you need to know about solitary confinement in prisons in England & Wales

Segregation units harm both mental and physical health 

Credit: Prison Reform Trust

Credit: Prison Reform Trust

 

Prisoners held in solitary confinement in England and Wales are kept in hopeless enclosed spaces that can damage both their physical and mental health. A disproportionate number of inmates are Muslim and some are mere teens. Many stays are short, but some are held for years at an annual cost of £100,000.

Regimes at the segregation units and Close Supervision Centres (CSC) were described as “impoverished” in a report by the Prison Reform Trust called Deep Custody. The units fall short of international standards in some areas and provide little education or “purposeful activity”. 

And the ones who are supposed to guard prisoners’ rights are not much better. The “unhelpful” Independent Monitoring Boards (IMB) came in for especially heavy criticism. However, on a more positive note, relationships between prisoners and staff were mostly healthy.

 

 

Stats and facts about solitary confinement 

Prisoners can be “taken down” to solitary confinement for a wide variety of reasons, but mostly for disruptive behaviour. In the first three months of 2014 for example, almost 10 per cent of the prison population spent at least one night in segregation.

There are key differences between segregation and CSCs. Segregated prisoners can spend as little as half an hour out of cell per day with very limited activities, but they are usually there for shorter periods. CSC inmates can associate with others and have access to activities, but typically spend years away from the main population.

Here are some quick stats on the system:

  • Total segregation capacity: 1586 cells (Jan 2015)  
  • CSC apacity: 54 
  • Cost: an annual cost at £100,000 per prison per CSC bed 
  • Muslim: of the 50 prisoners held in CSCs in July 2015, half were Muslim
  • Average stay9 per cent were segregated for longer than 84 days and 20 per cent for between 14 and 42 days. The average stay in CSCs was 40 months with two inmates who had been in the system for over 12 years.
  • Sex and age: The majority (95%) of those segregated were adult males. Their average age was 29, but eight of those interviewed were under 21. The youngest was 18. 

It is also important to note that many prisoners deliberately engineer a move to the segregation unit, usually with the intention of being transferred to another prison – also called to “ship out”. They are often trying to avoid repaying debts to other prisoners or are getting away from drugs or violence on the wings.

 

 

Report’s key findings on solitary confinement 

The Prison Reform Trust’s report found that segregation units were “characterised by social isolation, inactivity and increased control of prisoners”. Here are edited highlights of the report: 

  • Mental health: Previous research on solitary confinement has found that its impact on mental health included problems of anxiety, depression, anger, difficulty in concentration, insomnia, and an increased risk of self-harm. Over half of the prisoners interviewed reported three or more of these. Prison officers said they needed more mental health training.
  • Regimes and exercise: Regimes in segregation units were impoverished, comprising little more than a short period of exercise, a shower, a phone call, and meals. They were characterised by social isolation and restricted sensory input. In some units prisoners had to choose between having a shower and taking exercise or making a phone call in any one day. Most of the prisons did not meet international standards in the provision of exercise offering only completely barren fenced-in pens. In most units, periods of exercise lasted 20 – 30 minutes, well short of the 60 minutes stated in the European Prison Rules and the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules).
  • Conditions: While many units were spotlessly clean and modern with murals decorating the walls, some fell far short of standards. A number of the units dated back to Victorian times while others were originally designed for a different purpose, for example a hospital wing. Many suffered sealed air quality and poor temperature control, resulting in units being either too cold or too hot. Some units suffered from bad acoustics, which impinged on prisoners’ privacy and also meant that they were afforded very little quiet time. One unit the special cell was stained with spots of dried blood and another unit had remnants of a dirty protest on the door frame.
  • Independent Monitoring Boards: Only nine of the 67 prisoners interviewed felt that the IMB had helped them. Two-thirds were clear that the IMB had not been helpful. IMBs contributed very little, potentially raising questions about their effectiveness as a check/safeguard against inappropriate use of segregation.
  • Healthcare: While some health care staff were conscientious in raising concerns about individuals through the initial safety assessment, others completed the screens in tick-box fashion. Many health care workers misconstrued their role, thinking that the form required them to pass people as ‘fit’ for segregation.
  • Close supervision centres: Many prisoners in CSCs did not agree with or understand the reasons for their selection and felt that opportunities to demonstrate a reduction in risk were limited. The report also noted that a disproportionate number of prisoners in the CSCs were Muslim.
  • Prisoner-staff relationships: Prisoner-staff relationships were a key strength of many of the segregation units. Most prisoners felt that relations with officers were good. The vast majority (89 per cent) said there were some segregation/CSC officers with whom they got along well. A majority of segregated prisoners perceived officers as supportive (57 per cent).

 

Let us know what you think 

We will have more on solitary confinement in British prisons soon. In the meantime, please share your thoughts.

 


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