03/01/2016 14:16 GMT | Updated 03/01/2017 05:12 GMT

Solitary Confinement and Isolation for Women in Prison:

In December 2015, the Nelson Mandela rules were introduced by the United Nations. Within these rules there are specific clauses that prohibit indefinite or prolonged solitary confinement, the reduction of a prisoner's diet or drinking water as well as collective punishment. Further to this the Nelson Mandela rules explain that restrictive measures shall not include the prohibition of family contact.

Human rights organisations publicise and campaign about extreme cases of solitary confinement or isolation. For example, Amnesty International are currently publicising the case of Albert Woodfox who is still in solitary after 43 years in Louisiana within the United States. According to Amnesty International solitary confinement in this case is not only prolonged, but also this prisoner has a tiny cell with little natural light.

Solitary confinement and isolation are not the same. The differences between these measures have been highlighted by the Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association. This organisation is involved with campaigns about the collective punishment of political prisoners within Israel and Palestine. In particular, the claim is that the Israel prison service use isolation as a preventative measure and isolation can be ordered by the courts within Israel. The Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association provide a detailed account of general issues relating to international definitions of solitary confinement and isolation. Having highlighted international legislation and examples however what about solitary confinement and isolation for women in prison?

It is possible to search the internet and find examples where women in prison have been detained in solitary confinement or isolation. At the end of 2015 two reports have been published in the United Kingdom which highlights the complexity of solitary confinement and isolation for women in prison.

Solitary confinement:

The Convention Against Torture (CAT) is an important international instrument and forms international requirements using the treaty system. The United Kingdom has ratified to the Optional Protocol to the CAT which states how nation-states must have a National Preventative Mechanism in place in order to monitor compliance in places of detention. Within England the National Preventative Mechanism co-ordinates inspections of prisons and consists of several English Commissions, Her Majesties Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) as well as Independent Monitoring Boards (IMB). At the end of 2015, the national preventative mechanism for the United Kingdom published its latest annual report. This document called 'monitoring places of detention' includes a report following research conducted by members of the National Preventative Mechanism (NPM) about isolation and solitary confinement. The annual report provides working definitions, examples of where isolation and solitary confinement occurs as well as a number of concerns about the variation in the conditions of prisoners within the United Kingdom.

Solitary confinement for women in prison was not the main focus of research by the NPM. Despite this within the annual report, it is claimed that inspectors consider prisoners on basic regimes, unemployed or isolated within health care units amounts to solitary confinement. In particular, the NPM explains that while women are not necessarily put in a formal segregation unit, a small number of women who are subject to formal punishment serve this in their own cell. The annual report claims that the management of this arrangement needs to be improved however it was considered that the use of punishment within cells is better than the use of formal segregation units. Very little is known about the solitary confinement of female prisoners and the extent women are confined in their cells as a result of restrictions within the prison or staff shortages.


The latest annual report by the NPM is useful for its working definitions of isolation and solitary confinement that are relevant for imprisoned populations within the United Kingdom. These definitions highlight the complexity of differentiating between isolation and solitary confinement. Unlike other jurisdictions, where there are clear differences or examples that can be publicised as a breach of human rights, within the United Kingdom the regime within prisons is complex and power not always visible. The issue of the invisible nature of power within prison regimes has been discussed by academics. For example, prison officers have powers to make many informal decisions and they are the first point of call for prisoners' progression through the prison (Crewe, 2007). Studies claim that in practice the bureaucratic rule is implemented in an erratic and inconsistent manner (Crawley, 2004; Crewe, 2007; Drake, 2012).

While these studies have concerned men's prisons a recent report about the care for childbearing women and their babies in prison (O'Keefe and Dixon, 2015) highlights the nature of punishment for women. In the forward to this report, Baroness Corston, explains that little is known about the consequences not only for women but also their babies who are being removed shortly after birth. The working definition of isolation included issues relating to social contact. The report by O'Keefe and Dixon (2015) mentions how women within mother and baby units receive less visits from family and friends due to how these units are often placed a long distance from their homes. This report (O'Keefe and Dixon, 2015) highlights that foreign national prisoners often have no contact with their children between arrest and deportation, longer visits with children are offered as an incentive to behave well and visiting arrangements vary throughout the female prison regime.

While there are many organisations, researchers and practitioners interested in issues relating to women in prison; there is a need for more in depth and strategic direction. While solitary confinement and isolation is often promoted by human rights organisations, the cases they use are examples that are not necessarily relevant for all women in prison. Despite this, the recent reports about women in prison highlight how many women in prison could be subject to solitary confinement or isolation and this is not generally recognised or hidden from public debate. For more about issues relating to women in prison go to research for women in prison.