Solitary confinement in the UK in the words of prisoners and staffPosted: January 21, 2016
Descriptions of the system from the inside
We did a post a couple of weeks ago about the solitary confinement of prisoners in Britain. We wrote about the damage to both their physical and mental health caused by long periods in segregation units and Close Supervision Centres (CSC).
But now prisoners and staff tell the story in their own words.
A report on UK solitary confinement
The quotes below come from a report by the Prison Reform Trust called Deep Custody. Its findings are based on almost 150 interviews with staff and prisoners during visits to 14 segregation units and four close supervision centres (CSC). In addition, there was a separate survey of 66 prisons in January 2014.
Let’s start by looking at the effects of segregation.
The effects of 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 have been many reports and academic studies on the adverse effects of solitary confinement, especially with regard to mental health. But here it is in the words of the staff and prisoners themselves.
Ten suicide attempts so far, and my mental health is deteriorating, but I am doing better than a lot of the others. (Prisoner)
Before CSC, I was on no medications. Now I am on anti-depressants, anti- psychotics and valium. That is just the pressure of being here. Most CSC prisoners end up in hospitals. (Prisoner)
[Segregation] just made me worse and made me mentally even more ill. They say it is tool to challenge. Made me more ill; behaviour even worse. (Prisoner)
Many officers are fully aware of the situation and said they wanted extra training in mental health issues.
We had 11 people in segregation. Of them, probably four or five had serious mental health issues. They shouldn’t have been there. They should’ve been in hospital. You can see a downturn in their behaviour, some would withdraw completely; others would want to wreck the place when they’ve shown no previous behaviour like that in the wings. (Officer)
One manager said doctors should stand up and speak out on the negative effects on people’s mental and physical health.
Everyone knows the damaging effects of segregation. I’m surprised the General Medical Council isn’t challenging the use of segregation and the high risk it places individuals in. If the GMC said no to segregation, then governors would not use it. But doctors sign up to it. (Manager)
Some prisoners turn to self-harm and even suicide to deal with the stress of isolation.
I don’t want to harm prison officers, so I’ve been harming myself to such a degree that I’ve almost died two times. (CSC prisoner)
Feeling suicidal, neglected, victimised, locked up 23 hours, on my bed covering my head. I was cold, depressed, and suicidal. Cry myself to sleep not mentally able to do anything. Die, I wanted to die. (Prisoner)
An officer recalled an especially harrowing case.
A kid -19 – was found [almost] dead. He hanged himself. He was a prolific attempter. Left segregation to the house block with no proper handover. By the time staff got to him, he was [almost] dead. We cut him down. We worked on him until the paramedics came. He was a nice lad. It’s not like Bay Watch. There’s oozing of body fluids… after working on him we got him back. There was no healthcare in the prison. We had to tell the nurse what to do. He’s done it a few times before and got close, but not that close. (Officer)
Much of the above can be attributed to the lack of activity on offer while in solitary confinement.
Why are people held in solitary confinement?
Some inmates said they understood why they were in segregation and others tried to go there deliberately in the hope of “shipping out” – being transferred to another prison. But some prisoners thought they had been isolated unfairly.
I met a man who had gone there to get a ship out. He waited there nine months. Then he said this isn’t getting me anywhere so he went back on the wing and stabbed another prisoner. They shipped him out. (Prisoner)
I’ve done the route, ‘go back to the wing’. Nothing has happened. When I dropped on the netting, all of a sudden, everyone asked me what I wanted – officers, wing managers. All of a sudden I had their full attention. (Prisoner)
Staff often feel trapped by the system too.
I have five who have been in [segregation] over three months and four in over six months. I don’t want prisoners down the seg that long, but trying to move them is difficult. Moving involves the whole estate and I don’t have the authority. (Manager)
Transfer is the only guard I have against lengthy stays. If the prisoner doesn’t want to move [back to normal location], I have no other choice. (Governor)
You should have a couple down here, your most problematic prisoners… the reasons [for segregation under “good order or discipline”] are a bit ropey. (Officer)
On top of this, prisoners often are left with very little to occupy their time.
What do prisoners in solitary confinement do?
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.
Overall, the regimes in segregation units and CSCs came in for much criticism. Here are just a few of many remarks.
I have never understood the empty regime in segregation. It is not a ‘regime’: you’re providing the bare entitlements and that’s it. Why not get them to engage? ….Everyone should have a care plan with short-term targets that challenge their behaviour. (Manager)
I’ve got nothing positive to say about the CSC system. It’s torture – lots of mind games. How it’s run. If they take everything off you, you have nothing to lose – they give us this label of ‘worst of the worst’ – sometimes you have no option. You’re sat in your cell for 23 hours. You’re stewing. Things go round and round and, for sure, when I come out the first person I see will get it – whoever it is in front of me. They push you and push you to see when you’ll snap. (Prisoner)
Many speak of the awful effects of long periods of isolation.
Your head does go…only so many times you can speak to four walls…30-40 days, your head does go. (Female prisoner)
I had alcoholic parents who used to lock me in a room and go out drinking. It’s happening again in here. (Prisoner)
I’ve been in isolation for four and a half years without a break. Was sent to Health Care to ‘see how I get on with people’; was overwhelmed – panic, anxiety, picking up on the nuances of people’s behaviour.(Prisoner)
One prisoner summed up the effects in a series of short phrases.
Isolation. Limited family contact. Boredom. Repeated searching. Lack of access to support. Suicidal thoughts. Excessive officer presence. Mistreatment by officers. Seeing others deteriorate. Lack of hope. (Prisoner)
The main complain is a lack of “purposeful activity” including work and education. When asked what he did, one prisoner simply replied: “I sit there with my head in my hands.”
[I just] loaf around, stay in my cell, watch DVDs. There’s nothing to do. They’ve cut down the sessions in the gym. . . . Since I’ve been here, I have not done anything. It’s like two years spent doing nothing. (Prisoner)
Being behind my door all the time is quite disorienting. I was always told I couldn’t go to work. I’d prefer to do something more constructive with my time….I haven’t done any programmes, and that isn’t helping me. (Prisoner)
Lie on my bed all day, pretty much. Listening to radio or walking in circles in my cell, basically that’s what my day consists of. (Prisoner)
[It’s] alright for about a week, peaceful, but after that it just starts messing with your head. (Prisoner)
Here at PWUK, we’re not sure we’d last a day in some of the conditions described above!