The Istanbul Statement on the Use and Effects of Solitary Confinement


To address the increasing use of solitary confinement and its harmful effects, a working group of 24 international experts adopted on December 9th 2007 the Istanbul Expert Statement on the Use and Effects of Solitary Confinement, calling on States to limit the use of solitary confinement to very exceptional cases, for as short a time as possible, and only as a last resort.

UN Special Rapporteur on Torture report on Solitary Confinement, submitted to the General Assembly, 5 August 2011. UN Doc Number: A 66/268 (link)

Full text

Adopted on 9. December 2007 at the International Psychological Trauma Symposium, Istanbul.

The purpose of the statement

Recent years have seen an increase in the use of strict and often prolonged solitary confinement practices in prison systems in various jurisdictions across the world. This may take the form of a disproportionate disciplinary measure, or increasingly, the creation of whole prisons based upon a model of strict isolation of prisoners.1 While acknowledging that in exceptional cases the use of solitary confinement may be necessary, we consider this a very problematic and worrying development. We therefore consider it timely to address this issue with an expert statement on the use and effects of solitary confinement.​


Solitary confinement is the physical isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells for twenty-two to twenty-four hours a day. In many jurisdictions prisoners are allowed out of their cells for one hour of solitary exercise. Meaningful contact with other people is typically reduced to a minimum. The reduction in stimuli is not only quantitative but also qualitative. The available stimuli and the occasional social contacts are seldom freely chosen, are generally monotonous, and are often not empathetic.

Common practices of solitary confinement

Solitary confinement is applied in broadly four circumstances in various criminal justice systems around the world; as either a disciplinary punishment for sentenced prisoners; for the isolation of individuals during an ongoing criminal investigation; increasingly as an administrative tool for managing specific groups of prisoners; and as a judicial sentencing. In many jurisdictions solitary confinement is also used as a substitute for proper medical or psychiatric care for mentally disordered individuals. Additionally, solitary confinement is increasingly used as a part of coercive interrogation, and is often an integral part of enforced disappearance or incommunicado detention.

The effects of solitary confinement

It has been convincingly documented on numerous occasions that solitary confinement may cause serious psychological and sometimes physiological ill effects.3 Research suggests that between one third and as many as 90 per cent of prisoners experience adverse symptoms in solitary confinement.

A long list of symptoms ranging from insomnia and confusion to hallucinations and psychosis has been documented. Negative health effects can occur after only a few days in solitary confinement, and the health risks rise with each additional day spent in such conditions.

Individuals may react to solitary confinement differently. Still, a significant number of individuals will experience serious health problems regardless of the specific conditions, regardless of time and place, and regardless of pre-existing personal factors. The central harmful feature of solitary confinement is that it reduces meaningful social contact to a level of social and psychological stimulus that many will experience as insufficient to sustain health and well being.

The use of solitary confinement in remand prisons carries with it another harmful dimension since the detrimental effects will often create a de facto situation of psychological pressure which can influence the pre-trial detainees to plead guilty.

When the element of psychological pressure is used on purpose as part of isolation regimes such practices become coercive and can amount to torture.

Finally solitary confinement places individuals very far out of sight of justice. This can cause problems even in societies traditionally based on the rule of law. The history of solitary confinement is rich in examples of abusive practices evolving in such settings. Safeguarding prisoner rights therefore becomes especially challenging and extraordinarily important where solitary confinement regimes exist.

Human rights and solitary confinement

The use of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment is absolutely prohibited under international law (Article 7 of the UN convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the UN convention against Torture (CAT), for example). The UN Human Rights Committee has stipulated that use of prolonged solitary confinement may amount to a breach of Article 7 of the ICCPR (General comment 20/44, 3. April 1992). The UN Committee against Torture has made similar statements, with particular reference to the use of solitary confinement during pre-trial detention. The UN committee on the Rights of the Child has furthermore recommended that solitary confinement should not be used against children.4 Principle 7 of the UN Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners states that ‘Efforts addressed to the abolition of solitary confinement as a punishment, or to the restriction of its use, should be undertaken and encouraged’. Jurisprudence of the UN Human Rights Committee has previously found a specific isolation regime to violate both article 7 and article 10 of the ICCPR (Campos v. Peru 9. January 1998).

On a regional level, the European Court and former Commission on Human Rights, as well as the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), have made it clear that the use of solitary confinement can amount to a violation of Article 3 of the ECHR (i.e. constitute torture, inhuman or degrading treatment), depending on the specific circumstances of the case, and the conditions and duration of detention. It has been recognised that “…complete sensory isolation coupled with total isolation, can destroy the personality and constitutes a form of inhuman treatment which cannot be justified by the requirements of security or any other reason”. The CPT has also stated that solitary confinement “can amount to inhuman and degrading treatment” and has on several occasions criticized such practices and recommended reform – i.e. either abandoning specific regimes, limiting the use of solitary confinement to exceptional circumstances, and/or securing inmates a higher level of social contact.6 The importance of developing communal activities for prisoners subjected to various forms of isolation regimes has for example been stressed (CPT, visit report Turkey, 2006, para. 43). Furthermore, the revised European Prison Rules of 2006 have clearly stated that solitary confinement should be an exceptional measure and, when used, should be for as short a time as possible.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has also stated that prolonged solitary confinement constitutes a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment prohibited under Article 5 of the American Convention on Human Rights (Castillo Petruzzi et al., Judgment of May 30, 1999).

Policy implications

Solitary confinement harms prisoners who are not previously mentally ill and tends to worsen the mental health of those who are. The use of solitary confinement in prisons should therefore be kept to a minimum. In all prison systems there is some use of solitary confinement – in special units or prisons for those seen as threats to security and prison order. But regardless of the specific circumstances, and whether solitary confinement is used in connection with disciplinary or administrative segregation or to prevent collusion in remand prisons, effort is required to raise the level of meaningful social contacts for prisoners. This can be done in a number of ways, such as raising the level of prison staff-prisoner contact, allowing access to social activities with other prisoners, allowing more visits, and allowing and arranging in-depth talks with psychologists,
psychiatrists, religious prison personnel, and volunteers from the local community. Especially important are the possibilities for both maintaining and developing relations with the outside world including spouses, partners, children, other family and friends. It is also very important to provide prisoners in solitary confinement with meaningful in cell and out of cell activities.

Research indicates that small group isolation in some circumstances may have similar effects to solitary confinement and such regimes should not be considered an appropriate alternative. The use of solitary confinement should be absolutely prohibited in the following circumstances:

  • For death row and life-sentenced prisoners by virtue of their sentence.
  • For mentally ill prisoners.
  • For children under the age of 18.

Furthermore, when isolation regimes are intentionally used to apply psychological pressure on prisoners, such practices become coercive and should be absolutely prohibited.

As a general principle solitary confinement should only be used in very exceptional cases, for as short a time as possible and only as a last resort.

Task group participants

  • Alp Ayan, psychiatrist, Human Rights Foundation of Turkey
  • Türkcan Baykal, M.D., Human Rights Foundation of Turkey
  • Jonathan Beynon, M.D., Coordinator of health in detention, ICRC, Switzerland*
  • Carole Dromer, Médecins du Monde
  • Şebnem Korur Fincancı, Professor, Specialist on Forensic Medicine, İstanbul University, Turkey
  • Andre Gautier, Psychologist and psychoanalyst, ITEI-Bolivia
  • Inge Genefke, MD, DMSc hc mult, IRCT Ambassador, Founder of RCT and IRCT
  • Bernard Granjon, Médecins du Monde
  • Bertrand Guery, Médecins du Monde
  • Melek Göregenli, Professor in psychology, Psychology Dept., Ege University, Turkey
  • Cem Kaptanoğlu, Professor, psychiatrist, Osmangazi University, Turkey
  • Monica Lloyd, the Chief Inspector of Prisons office, United Kingdom*
  • Leanh Nguyen, Clinical Psychologist, Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture
  • Manfred Nowak, Special Rapporteur on Torture, UN and Director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights
  • Carol Prendergast, Director of Operations, Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture
  • Christian Pross, M.D., Center for the Treatment of Torture Victims, Berlin, Germany
  • Sidsel Rogde, MD, PhD, Professor of Forensic Medicine, University of Oslo, Norway
  • Doğan Şahin, Ass. Professor, psychiatrist, İstanbul University, Turkey
  • Sharon Shalev, Mannheim Centre for Criminology, London School of Economics
  • Peter Scharff Smith, Senior Researcher, the Danish Institute for Human Rights
  • Alper Tecer, psychiatrist, Human Rights Foundation of Turkey
  • Hülya Üçpınar, legal expert, Human Rights Foundation of Turkey
  • Veysi Ülgen, M.D., TOHAV
  • Miriam Wernicke, Legal Adviser, IRCT

*The points of view expressed are the personal opinions of the individuals, and do not necessarily represent the position of their organizations.