Can solitary confinement amount to torture or
Legal Advisor, APT
What is solitary confinement?
Solitary confinement means different things in different
detention systems. The Special Rapporteur on Torture
defined solitary confinement in a report to the United
Nations General Assembly, which focused on solitary
confinement, stating that it is “the physical and social
isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells
for 22 to 24 hours a day”. A similar definition appears in
the Istanbul Statement on the Use and Effects of Solitary
What is the link between solitary confinement and
the prevention of torture?
First, when persons deprived of their liberty are isolated
and limits are placed on their contacts with the outside
world, the risk that torture will occur is increased.
Second, solitary confinement, itself, can amount to
torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or
The Special Rapporteur has stressed that “solitary
confinement should be used only in very exceptional
circumstances, as a last resort, for as short a time as
Is solitary confinement prohibited in international
All solitary confinement is not barred, but international
law places important limits on the practice.
First, solitary confinement that amounts to cruel, inhuman
or degrading treatment or punishment (CIDT) or torture
is prohibited just like other forms of CIDT and torture. In
his report the Special Rapporteur sets out his view that
in order to determine whether solitary confinement
amounts to torture or CIDT, “all relevant circumstances”
including the “purpose of the application of solitary
confinement, the conditions, length and effects of the
treatment” and “the subjective conditions of each victim
that make him or her more or less vulnerable to the
effects” must be taken into consideration. He also states
that the solitary confinement of children, persons with
mental disabilities, and prolonged solitary confinement
(which he defines as more than 15 days) constitute CIDT
Second, procedural safeguards must be in place when
solitary confinement is applied. The Special Rapporteur
lists a number of safeguards in his report including
the right to know the reasons for placement in solitary
confinement, an opportunity to challenge the placement
through both an administrative process and the courts,
access to legal counsel, and medical monitoring.
For more information and specific recommendations,
please refer to the Special Rapporteur’s report (UN Doc.
A/66/268) at http://www.un.org/Docs/journal/asp/
ws.asp?m=A/66/268 and the Istanbul Statement, which
is appended to UN Doc. A/63/175 at http://www.unhcr.