Progress in the
Penal System (PIPS)

Standard 26: Solitary confinement (2020)

Standard 26:

Solitary confinement is used as a last resort and only in exceptional circumstances. It is used for the shortest period possible, and for a maximum of 15 days. Reasons for and lengths of time a prisoner is held in solitary confinement must be recorded.


Solitary confinement has damaging physical and psychological effects on an individual. Medical research demonstrates that the denial of meaningful human contact can lead to ‘isolation syndrome’ with a range of symptoms including anxiety, depression, anger, self-harm and suicide. As highlighted in IPRT’s 2018 report on solitary confinement:

“the exceptional and devastating harm to prisoners’ mental health that can be caused by extended periods of isolation means the practice of holding any category of prisoner on 22- or 23-hour lock up must be abolished.” [300]

Current context:

Irish Prison Service Census figures in January 2020 show that 75 people were held in solitary confinement in Irish prisons.[301] This figure compares with 40 people in the census for January 2019.[302] Of the 75 in solitary confinement in January 2020, 22% were young adults between the ages of 18–24. This is particularly concerning given the neuro-scientific evidence that brain development continues well into the mid-twenties, and the particularly damaging effects of isolation and lack of access to meaningful activity for this age group.[303]

Census figures for April and July 2020 show a dramatic increase to 127 and 273 respectively of people on a restricted regime of 22 or more hours per day.[304] However, these figures include people in quarantine and medical isolation. Therefore, the numbers being held in solitary confinement for non-medical reasons, such as protection, is not known.

Media reports in 2020 suggest that prisoners suspected of having Covid-19 have been held in conditions akin to solitary confinement during the pandemic.[305] Similarly, in a report published by the Office of Inspector of Prisons and Maynooth University, one prisoner who was cocooning described his experience thus:[306]

My punishment by the courts was prison, now doing my punishment cocooning is like doing my time in solitary confinement. Being punished now for having a chronic, obstructive, pulmonary disease.’

Some prisoners may hide symptoms to avoid being housed in conditions akin to solitary confinement even if only temporarily.[307] Therefore, it is important that any restricted regime imposed is distinct to that of solitary confinement. This highlights the importance of oversight in our prisons during exceptional circumstances and ensures that these circumstances do not become the norm.[308]

In July 2020, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted a recommendation on the revised European Prison Rules, which includes that States should set in their national legislation the maximum period for which solitary confinement may be imposed.[309]

Indicators for Standard:

Indicators for Standard 26

Indicator S26.1: The number of prisoners on 22–24 hour lock up

75 people were held in solitary confinement in January 2020.[310] 127 people were on a restricted regime of 22 or more hours per day in April 2020; this included medical-related isolation.[311]

Indicator S26.2: Number of prisoners on 22 hours + lockup for 15 days or over

The Irish Prison Service has stated that the service does not collate this data.[312]

Progressive Practice:

Progressive Practice, Revised European Prison Rules 2020[313]

The revised European Prison Rules in 2020 provide a number of stipulations related to solitary confinement. One of the key provisions is that the maximum period in which solitary confinement may be imposed for should be set in national law.[314] This also includes that where solitary confinement has been imposed, its execution should be stopped if the prisoner’s mental or physical health has deteriorated.[315] Moreover, it should not be imposed on prisoners with mental or physical disabilities when their condition would be exacerbated by it.

While the European Prison Rules are non-binding, the Rules are referenced by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT). These Rules apply across 47 Member States.[316]

Actions required:

Status of Standard 26: Regress

Rationale for Assessment

The number of people in solitary confinement had increased prior to the pandemic, and numbers locked up for 22 or more hours per day has more than doubled since. Data on the lengths of time people are being held in prolonged solitary confinement of more than 15 days is neither collated nor published, which was a recommended action in PIPS 2019.[317] This information should be routinely available. The absence of this information frustrates proper prison monitoring.

Action 26.1:

In line with the revised European Prison Rules, the maximum period for which solitary confinement may be permitted should be set out in national law. This should be no more than a maximum of 15 days.[318]

Action 26.2:

Data should be routinely collected and published by the Irish Prison Service on the lengths of time that prisoners are spending in solitary confinement. [Repeated]

Action 26.3:

Given the developmental needs of young adults, solitary confinement should be prohibited for young adults aged 18-24.


Irish Penal Reform Trust


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