• Is segregated custody an overused practice in Australia? (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
With few legal rights or protections for prisoners, questions are being asked as to whether it is ‘just’ to leave inmates isolated and alone for at least 22 hours a day.
By
Alana Schetzer

11 Jul 2017 - 2:40 PM  UPDATED 11 Jul 2017 - 4:09 PM

Imagine being in a room all by yourself, all day, for weeks or months on end. This room has no window and only one door, of which you do not have the key. There’s no one to speak to, no space to exercise, and nothing to do, read, watch or listen to.

It’s just you and your thoughts.

In Australia’s justice sector, solitary confinement is called ‘segregated custody’ and involves a person being placed in a closed cell on their own for at least 22 hours per day, with no human contact.

Solitary confinement is a controversial method of controlling and protecting certain prisoners, with increasing evidence of the mental anguish it causes to those subjected to it. But despite its controversial use, the laws governing who is subjected to it, and for how long, are not properly enshrined in state laws.

In Australia’s justice sector, solitary confinement is called ‘segregated custody’ and involves a person being placed in a closed cell on their own for at least 22 hours per day, with no human contact.

Hugh de Kretser, executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre, is of the opinion that Australia’s use of solitary confinement contravenes the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

“The rules require that solitary only be used as a last resort and for the shortest time possible and with safeguards around authorisation and review,” de Kretser says. “The rules prohibit both prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement.

“What’s clear is that solitary is overused and we need better laws and policies to limit its use in line with basic standards that ensure humane treatment in detention and that promote rehabilitation.”

According to Liberty Victoria, humane jail conditions include access to health services, an emphasis on rehabilitation rather than punishment, and prison conditions themselves should “uphold the human dignity of the prisoner”.

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International law prohibits the solitary confinement of children, despite its use at the notorious Northern Territory Don Dale youth detention centre.

“These standards and safeguards aren’t properly implemented in Australia law and there is no uniform approach across the various states and territories,” he says.

Under the UN’s rules, also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules, it defines prolonged solitary confinement as being 15 consecutive days or more.

“For example in Victoria, there is no prohibition on prolonged solitary confinement. There is legislation that merely provides that prisoners should have one hour outdoors each day weather permitting.”

International law prohibits the solitary confinement of children, despite its use at the notorious Northern Territory Don Dale youth detention centre.

There are reports of circumstances in which solitary confinement has been necessary, for the safety of inmates and other prisoners; prisoners who threaten self-harm or are suffering severely from mental illness; high-profile prisoners who be at risk of attacks from the general prison population; and those who are violent and threaten to hurt staff or other prisoners.

There is also a body of experts who say that the negative impact of solitary confinement has been overplayed; a study performed by researchers at the University of Colorado found that mental health problems did not necessarily worsen or even develop at all during confinement.

“We were surprised that only a small number of inmates in segregation got clinically worse,” Professor Jeffrey Metzner, who led the study, told Psychiatric News.

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To change or stay the same? 

Over in Queensland, a state government spokesperson has rejected claims that prisoners were forced to live in cramped, dark cells without natural light; they reported that solitary confinement cells contain a window, shower, sink, desk and chair, and a bookshelf.

However, de Krester tells SBS that, in some cases, solitary confinement is being used improperly in various parts of Australia. And because prisons are a state issue, there is no uniform law governing solitary confinement across the nation.

There is increasing evidence that proves the detrimental effects that solitary confinement can have on a person’s mental health. 

“Prisons use short-term solitary for punishment, behaviour management or to deal with particular security risks,” de Kretser says. “Prisoners are also held in solitary due to overcrowding or staff shortages.”

There is increasing evidence that proves the detrimental effects that solitary confinement can have on a person’s mental health. These include increases in stress, anxiety and depression, self-harm, reduced attention span, poor memory and concentration and disorientation, paranoia, psychosis and perceptual distortions, which includes hypersensitivity to noises and smells and disorientation.

de Kretser explains that given the extreme impact that solitary confinement can have on a prisoner’s psychological health, should require laws across the country to be changed – not only to ensure that they comply with the UN international standard – but to prevent the unnecessary mental anguish that comes with it.

“We need better laws and policies that strictly limit its use and that prohibit prolonged solitary. We need better systems of independent inspection and oversight and we need far better public data to expose the extent of overuse and the reasons cited to justify its use.”

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