“They become shells of their former selves”: Long-term solitary confinement is torture

Walking across the cell would probably take no more than three paces. There is no light. There are no other people. And a prisoner will be there for 23 of 24 hours a day.

A BBC article today recalls the solitary confinement experience of one member of the infamous Angola 3 – three prisoners of one of America’s most brutal prisons who have long claimed their innocence and been the subject of a growing call to address justice issues in the U.S. The three men have spent a combined 100 years in solitary confinement, in cells no larger than three by two meters.

And that is not uncommon in the country with the most people in prison (the U.S. has, by far, the highest incarceration rates in the world – twice as many Americans are imprisoned as in China, where there are five times as many people). Although determining figures are hard to come by, some estimate there are anywhere between 25,000 to 80,000 people locked up in long-term solitary confinement.

“Lock yourself in your bathroom for 10 years, then come out and tell me that that’s not torture”, said one former inmate.

And the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, agrees. Just last year in his first report as the special investigator, Professor Mendez reported that, “Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, Supermax, the hole, Secure Housing Unit (SHU)… whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by States as a punishment or extortion technique”. Any terms of confinement where an individual is alone for more than 22 hours per day, for a total of more than 15 days, may constitute torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment.

Sarah Shourd would agree. The American woman became famous a few years ago when she, her fiancé, and their friend were apprehended by Iranian security forces during a hiking trip on the border with Kurdistan. She spent 9,495 hours in solitary confinement. She recently wrote about this experience:

After two months with next to no human contact, my mind began to slip. Some days, I heard phantom footsteps coming down the hall. I spent large portions of my days crouched down on all fours by a small slit in the door, listening. In the periphery of my vision, I began to see flashing lights, only to jerk my head around to find that nothing was there. More than once, I beat at the walls until my knuckles bled and cried myself into a state of exhaustion. At one point, I heard someone screaming, and it wasn’t until I felt the hands of one of the friendlier guards on my face, trying to revive me, that I realized the screams were my own.

As we find ourselves often having to reiterate, no person shall be subject to torture, and, as Professor Mendez has stated, that includes long-term solitary confinement.


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  1. News roundup « World Without Torture

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