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Beyond Solitary Confinement: Lessons from European Prison Reform

This past summer, President Barack Obama ventured into new political territory with his visit to the El Reno prison in Oklahoma, which made him the first president ever to visit a federal correctional facility, and his commutation of the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders. Obama called for bipartisan support for an overhaul of the American criminal justice system, and, perhaps most importantly, became the first president to embrace criticism of solitary confinement, calling for a Justice Department review of the practice. “Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time?” Obama asked in a speech delivered at the NAACP convention in Philadelphia in July. “That is not going to make us safer. That is not going to make us stronger. And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt? It’s not smart.”

An estimated 75,000 state and federal prisoners are currently held in solitary confinement in the United States. And while President Obama is breaking new ground in the US, the country still lags behind its European counterparts, which have managed to reform their criminal justice systems and decrease the use of solitary confinement, with impressive results.

In all of England, there are now fewer prisoners in “extreme custody” or solitary confinement than there are in the state of Maine. And while there is increasing evidence showing the extremely high financial costs, psychologically damaging effects, and apparent lack of reduction of inmate-on-inmate violence resulting from solitary confinement, US public opinion has not adjusted accordingly. “Solitary confinement has exploded in this country, even as other Western nations have taken steps to reduce it,” Atul Gawande writes in his investigation of whether long-term solitary confinement is torture. He claims that this is the “dark side of American exceptionalism.”

Are there real lessons to be learned from European prison reform with regards to solitary confinement? And, if so, will a corresponding movement on a global scale and in the US begin moving in a similar direction?

More than 40 years ago, the European Commission on Human Rights condemned severe solitary confinement as a form of inhumane treatment, stating, “Complete sensory isolation coupled with complete social isolation can no doubt ultimately destroy the personality; thus it constitutes a form of inhuman treatment which cannot be justified by the requirements of security.”

Though long overdue, the issue of solitary confinement has also recently gained deeper global traction with explicit recognition by the United Nations. Last month, the United Nations announced the Revised Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, dubbed the “Nelson Mandela Rules” after the treatment the former leader of South Africa received at the hands of the apartheid state. The revised rules include more specific provisions on solitary confinement, defined as “the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful contact.” Prolonged solitary confinement is defined as solitary confinement for more than 15 days. Additionally, under the Mandela Rules, the scope for the application of solitary confinement is restricted.

If countries are to enact the revised Mandela Rules, they might look to select European cases to see what has worked, as well as how and why.

In the United Kingdom, beginning in the late 1960s, pervasive conflict in Northern Ireland brought hundreds of Irish Republican Army prisoners, committed to violent resistance, into British correctional facilities. Officials responded initially with harsh punitive control, which often meant the widespread use of solitary confinement. But violence in the prisons did not lessen, and costs were astronomical. As public outcry intensified, authorities gradually implemented an alternative.

In the 1980s, the British approach began to focus on preventing violence, rather than brutally punishing it. They theorized that the conditions of prison itself might actually be the source of the violence. In other words, rather than isolating the “problem prisoner” from the rest of the inmates in the crowded prison, they removed the problematic conditions instead. They found that “violence became a predictable consequence” wherever conditions “maximized humiliation and confrontation.” Rather than isolation, stable units of fewer than ten people in individual cells minimized the violence-inducing effects of social chaos and unpredictability.

By 1998, solitary confinement was reduced in favor of Close Supervision Centers, where the most dangerous prisoners were given more control, rather than less. Prisoners have access to education programs, libraries, mental-health treatment, and exercise. They can earn rights for more phone calls, exercise, and even access to cooking facilities. They are allowed to voice complaints, and individual monthly reports review prisoners’ progress in the units. The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible.

There are still significant variations within Europe in the maximum permissible duration for solitary confinement allowed as punishment. In Belgium, eight days is the maximum permissible duration, whereas Finland allows 14 days; Poland, England, and Wales allow 28; France and Estonia allow 45; and Ireland allows up to 60. But overall, the dangers of solitary confinement have been recognized.

In the United States, solitary confinement costs taxpayers an estimated $75,000 per prisoner per year. And to what end? A report by the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons in 2006 found that beyond ten days of solitary confinement, the practice had practically no redeeming qualities and posed clear harm for the inmate as well as the society into which the prisoner might eventually be released. The report asserted that “solitary confinement is not the only option” and recommended that the United States follow Europe’s lead with preventive approaches instead.

Despite emerging evidence and recommendations, public opinion in the United States has remained unchanged. Though President Obama has drawn attention to the issue in recent months, neither he nor other candidates addressed the question of whether prolonged solitary confinement is torture in recent campaigns and elections. For a candidate, according to Gawande, “this would have been political suicide.”

European penal systems are by no means perfect. But in the face of daunting costs and mounting evidence that solitary confinement often does more harm than good, the United States and other countries can learn from the areas in which European prison reforms have been successful as they begin to more fully implement the UN’s Mandela Rules. The fact that the leading organization for US prison and jail administrators recently called for sharply limiting or even ending the use of solitary confinement for extended periods of time may signal a shift in that direction. But whether words will translate into action remains to be seen and will largely depend on public demand for reform at the state and federal levels. As has occurred in Europe, public opinion must be realigned with fact when it comes to solitary confinement.

About the Author

Katherine Lamb '16 is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review, concentrating in International Relations and Middle East Studies.