Children Flying Solo – Solitary Confinement & Its Psychological Impact

A range of international instruments provides that solitary confinement should not be
used other than in the most exceptional circumstances. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT 1987) states :-

‘Solitary confinement can, in certain circumstances, amount to inhuman and degrading treatment; in any event, all forms of solitary confinement should be as short as possible’.

The terms solitary confinement, segregation, single separation and isolation are commonly used across the juvenile secure system in England.The practices vary from the possibility of a child spending several weeks in prison punishment cells,to a few minutes alone in a bedroom or office.

On behalf of the Howard League For Penal Reform, The Lord Carlile of Berriew QC carried out an independent inquiry into the use of physical restraint, solitary confinement and forcible strip searching of children in prisons, secure training centres and local authority secure children’s homes. In that inquiry he found that solitary confinement could and frequently did follow the use of physical force.

Between January 2004 and June 2005 the institutions included in his inquiry, used solitary confinement 2,329 times. Only five of the institutions gave information about the number of children segregated, which showed that 519 children had been placed in solitary confinement. Information from one Youth Facility revealed that solitary confinement was used 946 times.The number of self-harm incidents in prison segregation units as a result was a major concern.There were 117 incidents of self injury recorded by prisons (5 July 2004, Hansard, col 552W). Anne Owers (2003), the Chief Inspector of Prisons, has described solitary confinement as a prison within a prison. In her words solitary confinement has a pervasive effect on the entire prison population despite the fact that it usually only directly affects a small number of those living and working in a prison.

Dr Stuart Grassian,a board certified psychiatrist with extensive psychiatric experience in evaluating mental health issues,had this to say about the effects of solitary confinement.

‘Historically the USA had been the world leader in introducing prolonged (solitary) confinement…Their system was emulated in several European nations in the 19th Century. But in the end the incidence of mental disturbances and their severity caused the system to be abandoned.’

When Dr Grassian initially agreed to research solitary confinement in relation to a specific group of prisoners he was sceptical. The results of his evaluations soon assured him of the long term ‘deleterious’ damage inflicted on the prisoner by lengthy periods of time spent in isolation.

“As soon as I got in I started cutting my wrists. I figured it was the only way to get out of here”

-Prisoner A

Significantly, the prisoner who said this couldn’t recall the events of the several days that surrounded his wrist slashing. Nor could he describe his thoughts and feelings at the time.

Dr Grassian concluded that some of the psychological symptoms that arose as a result of time spent in solitary, occurred in no other type of psychiatric illness. Indeed some of these symptoms were present in severe early onset Schizophrenia.

The Howard League for Penal Reform has stated its opposition to solitary confinement as has the ACLU. The European Convention on Human Rights clearly opposes what has been defined as torture. Why then is this method of  retributive punishment being administered to children & adults in prison in this post-industrial and technologically sophisticated,world?


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