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.
The practice of solitary confinement in Irish prisons has not been eliminated. In 2017, a number of progressive steps were taken towards the elimination of the practice including the introduction of an amendment to the Prison Rules, as well as the introduction of a policy to eliminate solitary confinement in the prison estate. Despite these developments, however, there appears to have been an increase in the number of prisoners being placed in solitary confinement, with 51 prisoners on 22 hour lock up, according to the April 2019 IPS Census of Restricted Regimes report.
Indicator S26.1: The number of prisoners on 22–24 hour lock up
The April 2019 IPS Census of Restricted Regimes report states that the practice of solitary confinement occurred in Mountjoy (male), Cloverhill, Limerick (male), Wheatfield and Dóchas (female). Among the 51 people affected, two were aged 18–20 years, 12 were aged 21–24 years and 37 were aged 25 years or over.
Indicator S26.2: Number of prisoners on 22 hours + lockup for 15 days or over (new)
This information has not been made available at the time of writing.
While there was significant momentum towards reducing the number of prisoners being held in solitary confinement in previous years, this momentum appears to have deteriorated. Figures from 2019 show a rise in the use of solitary confinement. Urgent action is required. Necessary steps include the consistent monitoring and publication of data, in particular on the number of people held in prolonged solitary confinement (more than 15 days), given its severely psychological effects on an individual. Comparatively, the practice of seclusion in psychiatric units in Ireland is highly regulated, whereby approved centres must inform the Inspector of Mental Health Services whenever the practice is extended beyond 72 hours. These data are published by the Mental Health Commission. Similar levels of oversight must be applied in prisons.
In the United States of America, step-down programmes and transitional units form part of a strategy to end long-term ‘restrictive housing’ or solitary confinement (i.e. where a person is held in a cell for 22–24 hours) in prisons there.
The Vera Institute of Justice outlines two main goals of these programmes:
There are two models adapted in the US:
The Vera Institute of Justice identifies five essential aspects of the effective functioning of these programmes, as follows.
5. Planned transitions to general population.The transition back to the general prison population should be planned. Each person should be transferred to a placement in the general prison population because it fits the needs of the individual and will keep them safe, maintaining the progress achieved.
|Action 26.1:||The IPS should publish data on the length of time prisoners are spending in solitary confinement, as part of its quarterly census. At a minimum, this should identify the number of prisoners in prolonged solitary confinement (i.e. more than 15 days).|
|Action 26.2:||The IPS in conjunction with the Prison Psychology Service should develop programmes to help prisoners transition from solitary confinement back into the general prison population.|
|Action 26.3:||Where the period of solitary confinement extends beyond 72 hours, the Inspector of Prisons should be notified.|
Penal Reform International and Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (2018), Guidance Document on the Nelson Mandela Rules, p. 105, https://s16889.pcdn.co/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Mandela-Rules-Guidance-Document.pdf.
Martynowicz, A. and Moore, L. (2018), “Behind the Door”: Solitary Confinement in the Irish Penal System (see foreword, p. 3), http://www.iprt.ie/files/Solitary_Confinement_web.pdf.
Irish Statute Book, Prison (Amendment) Rules 2017, http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/2017/si/276/made/en/print.
466 IPS (2017), Elimination of Solitary Confinement Policy, https://www.irishprisons.ie/wp-content/uploads/documents_pdf/Elimination-of-solitary-confinement-Policy.pdf.
IPS,‘Census of Restricted Regime reports’, https://www.irishprisons.ie/information-centre/statistics-information/census-reports/.
Kildare Street (2019), ‘Written Answers, Thursday 13 June 2019, Department of Justice and Equality, Prisoner Data’, https://www.kildarestreet.com/wrans/?id=2019-06-13a.242.
Mental Health Commission Annual Report 2018 including Report of the Inspector of Mental Health Services, pp.66-67 https://www.mhcirl.ie/File/2018_AR_Incl_OIMS.pdf.
Vanka, E. (2019), Step-down Programs and Transitional Units: A Strategy to End Long-term Restrictive Housing, Vera Institute of Justice, https://storage.googleapis.com/vera-web-assets/downloads/Publications/step-down-programs-and-transitional-units- strategy-to-end-long-term-restrictive-housing/legacy_downloads/step-down-programs-and-transitional-units-strategy-to-end-long-term-restrictive-housing-policy-brief.pdf.