Although solitary confinement's international legal framework is solid, this practice is still widespread in the world, especially in the United States. It is important to distinguish short-term isolation - used as a common disciplinary sanction - from long-term solitary confinement for 22 to 24 hours a day. Solitary confinement may last between a couple of days and a couple of years.
The international legal framework
Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ("ICCPR" - 1966) states: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In particular, no one shall be subjected without his free consent to medical or scientific experimentation."
In its General comment No. 20 on Article 7 of the ICCPR, the Human Rights Committee stresses that "prolonged solitary confinement of the detained or imprisoned person may amount to acts prohibited by article 7. "
According to the Committee Against Torture: "Except in exceptional circumstances, such as when the safety of persons or property is involved, the Committee has recommended that the use of solitary confinement be abolished, particularly during pre-trial detention, or at least that it should be strictly and specifically regulated by law (maximum duration, etc.) and exercised under judicial supervision" (Special Rapporteur on Torture's report, 63rd session).
In his report to the UN General Assembly in 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture recommended a ban on prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement.
Principle 7 of the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners states that "efforts addressed to the abolition of solitary confinement as a punishment, or to the restriction of its use, should be undertaken and encouraged."
The Istanbul Statement on the use and effects of solitary confinement explicitly recommends that solitary confinement should not be applied to death row and life-sentenced prisoners.
Article 5.2 of the American Convention on Human Rights states that: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment or treatment." In one of its report submitted to the UN General Assembly, the Special Rapporteur on Torture stressed the Inter-American Court of Human Rights' jurisprudence. For example, the Court once held that "prolonged isolation and deprivation of communication are in themselves cruel and inhuman treatment, harmful to the psychological and moral integrity of the person and a violation of the right of any detainee to respect for his inherent dignity as a human being" (Velázquez-Rodríguez v. Honduras, Inter-American Court of Human Rights).
As for the European Court of Human Rights, it focuses on the level of isolation in its facts assessment. It has been established that "complete sensory isolation, coupled with total social isolation can destroy the personality and constitutes a form of inhuman treatment which cannot be justified by the requirements of security or any other reason" (Onoufriou v. Cyprus, Application No. 24407/04). Article 3 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms also states that: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
What about children?
What about solitary confinement of children?
Rule 67 of the 1990 UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty states that: "All disciplinary measures constituting cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment shall be strictly prohibited, including corporal punishment, placement in a dark cell, closed or solitary confinement or any other punishment that may compromise the physical or mental health of the juvenile concerned".
The Committee against torture has recommended that persons under the age of 18 should not be subjected to solitary confinement (Concluding observations of the Committee against Torture, 41st session).
The Committee on the Rights of the Child also repeatedly urges States parties to prohibit the placement of persons under the age of 18 in solitary confinement (see for ex, Concluding observations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child: Denmark, 2011). In its General Comment No. 10, the Committee on the Rights of the Child firmly prohibits solitary confinement as a disciplinary procedure that infringes Article 37 of the Convention on the rights of the child.
In the United States, "youth offenders often spend significant amounts of their time in US prisons isolated from the general prison population" according to Human Rights Watch. Solitary Watch gives the example of Ian Manuel who "spent 15 years in solitary confinement in adult prison for a crime he committed at age 13. He often cut himself, and he tried to kill himself at least five times."
Penal Reform International describes the psychological effects of solitary confinement as follows: "anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, paranoia, psychosis, self-harm and suicide. Prolonged isolation can destroy a person’s personality and their mental health and its effects may last long after the end of the period of segregation."
According to the Special Rapporteur on Torture, “it is not rare” for prisoners in the United States to spend 25-30 years in solitary confinement, locked up in a cell with no human contact for 22-23 hours a day." For instance, Thomas Silverstein has been held in solitary confinement for 28 years.
This practice also exists in countries such as the United Kingdom and Iran.
The American Civil Liberties Union has launched a petition to stop the use of long-term solitary confinement, recalling that "today there are tens of thousands of people, including children and the mentally ill, held in solitary confinement across the nation." You can sign it here.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out the rights that must be realized for children to develop their full potential, free from hunger and want, neglect and abuse. It reflects a new vision of the child. Children are neither the property of their parents nor are they helpless objects of charity. They are human beings and are the subject of their own rights. The Convention offers a vision of the child as an individual and as a member of a family and community, with rights and responsibilities appropriate to his or her age and stage of development. By recognizing children's rights in this way, the Convention firmly sets the focus on the whole child.