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Blog, Policy briefing | 25 June 2020

On International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, thousands are being held in solitary confinement

By Olivia Dehnavi, Policy and Research Officer at Working Chance

As lockdown conditions ease for the majority of the population, people in prison remain in extraordinarily harsh conditions. Locked up 23 hours a day, only leaving cells briefly to shower, exercise or use the phone, people in prison continue to get by without the visits, education and work that provide structure to life in prison.

These conditions have been compared to solitary confinement, a punishment that, under international standards, is considered torture.

Torture is a crime under international law, unjustifiable in all circumstances because it destroys the dignity of human beings.

Despite its long-term physiological effects, torture is often justified by states as a matter of national security. Today in the UK, solitary confinement of almost 80,000 people is being justified by a public health crisis – but there is another solution.

The government has had the chance, for months now, to follow the advice of experts and dramatically decrease the prison population. It could have efficiently implemented its own End of Custody Temporary Release scheme. But as of 23 June, in England and Wales only 175 people had been released. That doesn’t even include all of the 70 pregnant women that we know were incarcerated at the beginning of lockdown.

Instead, women who pose no risk have remained in prison where there are no visits, no education, no work, and little exercise. The overall prison population is falling, but only because the courts are not sitting, and the women’s estate is falling more slowly than the men’s. And since both Covid-19 and the criminal justice system evince this country’s institutional racism, our prison conditions are a racial justice issue.

An inspection of three women’s prisons in May found that self-harm had increased from the already soaring rates before lockdown. With both visits and support services suspended, people in prison have been left without a lifeline. The same report called the government’s ‘ineffective’ early release scheme ‘a failure of national planning.’

According to the UN expert on torture, solitary confinement is ‘the physical and social isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day.’ It is characterised by monotony, and ‘meaningful contact with other people is typically reduced to a minimum.’

During the pandemic, over 3,200 women in England and Wales have been shut in cells for 23 hours a day. In one private prison, time outside of cells amounted to just ten minutes per day from the imposition of lockdown measures until a month ago.

Why is solitary confinement considered torture? When people are kept isolated, the chances of being mistreated by authorities grow exponentially because of the absence of observation. Instances of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment and punishment are often reported by individuals who have undergone lengthy periods in solitary confinement. The longer they are isolated, the greater the risk to the individual.

This is why prison releases are the only humane way to ensure that while the public is protected from coronavirus, human rights abuses are not perpetrated on a huge scale. The government itself knows this – the head of the Prison Governors Association told them as much. This is why they initially announced a programme of releases, before the poorly-executed plans came to a premature end. Unfortunately, further plans to ease harsh prison restrictions don’t include reducing the prison population.

The ill effects of solitary confinement are long-lasting and made even worse when the period of confinement is longer than a few weeks or continued indefinitely. Years from now the people in prison today will be living out the trauma from the psychological torture they endured during this period. This unjust and undeserved punishment was far from the intention of judges when sentencing them.

The government still has the chance to execute a meaningful release scheme and save thousands from the trauma of what arguably amounts to torture. This moment could be a catalyst to reduce the prison population now and in the long term, to benefit the whole of society. To lose this opportunity would be criminal.