Progress in the
Penal System (PIPS)

26: Solitary confinement (2019)

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.[463] 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.[464]

Current context:

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,[465] as well as the introduction of a policy to eliminate solitary confinement in the prison estate.[466] 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.[467]

Indicators for Standard:

Indicators for Standard 26

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

The April 2019 IPS Census of Restricted Regimes report[468] 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.[469]


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.[470] Similar levels of oversight must be applied in prisons.

Status of Standard 26: Regress

Progressive Practice:

Step-down programmes and transitional units, USA

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.[471]

The Vera Institute of Justice outlines two main goals of these programmes:

  • to provide a route out of restrictive housing to ensure people do not spend prolonged periods of time in these type of conditions; and
  • to support people in restrictive housing to transition in less-restrictive settings including, the general prison population and with the overall objective of supporting the individual’s transition back into the community.

There are two models adapted in the US:

  • Transitional unit (TU): This is a housing unit that acts as a step between restrictive housing before being brought back to the mainstream prison population. It has fewer constraints than restrictive housing. TU’s are more structured and secure than general prisons. Compared to restrictive housing regimes, people in TUs may be allowed greater out-of-cell time, and provided with more opportunities for group activity.
  • Step-down programme (SDP): This is a programme with multiple phases that provide a progressive transition from restrictive housing to the general population. Generally, as people progress through phases they experience lesser restrictions with increases in out-of-cell time, greater privileges and group activites, where the size of groups in activities may also increase.

The Vera Institute of Justice identifies five essential aspects of the effective functioning of these programmes, as follows.[472]

  1. Individualised decisions are made about who is placed on the programme: Not everyone will need to access a SDP or TU. These are more appropriate for people who have spent a prolonged period of time in restrictive environments. The decision should be made by a multi-disciplinary team with input from the person themselves.
  2. Conditions in step-down programmes/transitional unit should differ from restrictive housing: Conditions should be less restrictive in STP/TUs; for example, there should be increased out-of-cell time allowing for participation in structured group activities.
  3. There should be meaningful out-of-cell group programmes and activities: There should be more opportunity to associate with other people via meaningful programmes and activities. While there may be some restrictions to ensure the safety of prisoners and staff during programmes, these should be only be used to the extent required.
  4. A clear process for progressing through the programme: There should be a well-defined route back to the general prison population. This should be communicated to both the prisoner and staff at the beginning. This process should involve:
  • frequent reviews by a multidisciplinary team to ascertain when the person progresses through the programme and when they are moved to the general population;
  • individual plans developed for each person in the programme, achieved through the staff and the person working together to progress the programme plan;
  • transparent reviews with objective criteria, whereby people understand what is expected of them to progress to a less restrictive prison environment (the criteria should be available to the individual both in writing and verbally);
  • a goal to move people back in a safe way and in the shortest time possible to the general prison population

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.

Actions required:

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.


Irish Penal Reform Trust


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