Solitary Confinement

Recognizing that the practice of solitary confinement is global in nature and subject to widespread abuse, in August of 2011 former Special Rapporteur on Torture, Professor Mendez, released his thematic report on solitary confinement.  Notably, based on the Istanbul Statement on the Use and Effects of Solitary Confinement, Professor Mendez defined solitary confinement and prolonged solitary confinement for the first time. Solitary confinement is the physical isolation of individuals for 22 to 24 hours a day, and prolonged solitary confinement is isolation lasting for more than 15 days as various studies show that the effects of solitary confinement may be irreversible after this time period.


Furthermore, Profesor Mendez concluded that indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement amounts to torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and should be prohibited. When applied to juveniles or persons with mental disabilities, he found that solitary confinement of any duration constitutes per se inhuman or degrading treatment or even torture. When solitary confinement is used during pre-trial detention or as a punishment it may also constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or torture.  Finally, solitary confinement should be used only in very exceptional circumstances as a last resort, and for as short a time as possible, in observance of minimum safeguards and guarantees.

Speaking Engagements

November 21, 2019: Congressional briefing. Professor Mendez and other experts in the fight against solitary confinement in the United States, including Johnny Perez (a survivor of solitary confinement and director of U.S. Prisons Program for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT)), AUWCL Prof. Brenda Smith, Mary Buser (former Assistant Mental Health Chief of Rikers Island), Rev. Ron Stief (Executive Director of NRCAT), and Amy Fettig (Deputy Director of the National Prison Project at the ACLU), participated in a congressional staff briefing on H.R. 4488 Solitary Confinement Study and Reform Act of 2019. The legislation seeks to develop and implement national standards for the use of solitary confinement in correctional facilities. The standing-room only event highlighted the disproportionate use of solitary confinement in the United States, the psychological impacts of solitary confinement, and the current state-level campaigns, and reforms to combat the use of solitary confinement.

February 2018: Launch of Report on Solitary Confinement, “Behind the Door: Solitary Confinement in the Irish Penal System” Irish Penal Reform Trust, Dublin, Ireland

February 23, 2016: Briefing Call in Response to President Obama’s Executive Actions on Solitary Confinement held in partnership with National Council of Churches, ACLU, Solitary Watch, Urban Justice Center, New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement

February 25, 2014: Special Rapporteur Méndez attended and submitted a written statement to the US Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. Professor Mendez issued his statement in preparation for the Committee’s hearing on “Reassessing Solitary Confinement II: The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences,” and submitted a statement for the public record. The Senate leaders echoed the SRT’s call for a ban on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, persons with mental disabilities, and pregnant women during the Congressional hearing.

March 12, 2013: Hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. On March 12, 2013, in collaboration with the ATI and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Professor Mendez appeared as an independent expert in the first ever hearing on Solitary Confinement in the Americas during the 147th session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The IACHR endorsed Professor Mendez's recommendations, and on April 5, 2013 issued a press release and annex, urging member states of the Organization of American States to comply with the recommendations, and to adopt concrete measures prohibiting the use of prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement, and the use of solitary confinement on juveniles and persons with mental disabilities.

October 18, 2013: Los Angeles Panel on Solitary Confinement. This panel was held in response to a historic prisoner hunger strike, and featured remarks by the Special Rapporteur; former prisoners who spent years in solitary confinement in Californian prisons; families of current prisoners in solitary confinement in CA prisons; representatives from California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement; the Muslim Public Affairs Council; the Executive Director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice; and a Minister from the United Church of Christ

Video Interviews
Amnesty International USA Video: Entombed: Solitary Confinement in US Prisons. In January of 2015, the Special Rapporteur appeared in a video created by Amnesty International USA, and discussed the extensive use of solitary confinement in US prisons.  He expressed particular concern about the lack of safeguards against the use of solitary confinement, as well as its use for prolonged periods of time.

National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NCRAT) Documentary: Breaking Down the Box. The NRCAT’s 2015 documentary examining issues of mental health, racial justice, and the human rights implications of the systemic use of solitary confinement in US prisons featured an interview with Special Rapporteur Méndez. The Special Rapporteur explained that the use of prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and even to torture under international law.

“For Their Own Protection: Children in Long-Term Solitary Confinement”
Todd Kranin’s 2013 film features an interview with the Special Rapporteur, who speaks out against the solitary confinement of juveniles.

PBS News Hour- Questioning Solitary Confinement for Adolescents at Rikers Island
In February of 2014, Special Rapporteur Méndez was interviewed for a news segment that discussed the effects that solitary confinement has on juveniles.

Strategic Litigation Efforts

United States of America
Ashker v. Governor of California: This case was a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of persons deprived of their liberty held in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison who spent a decade or more in solitary confinement. The case was settled and ultimately resulted in the end of indeterminate, long-term solitary confinement in California state prisons.

Shoatz v. Wetzel: This case challenged the 22 year solitary confinement of Russell Maroon Shoatz. In 2014 Mr. Shoatz was released from solitary confinement into the general population. The case was settled in 2016. 

Professor Mendez and ATI Assistant Project Director Vanessa Drummond submitted an amicus curiae brief elaborating on the international standards around solitary confinement in the case of Ali Hamza Ahmad Suliman Al Bahlul, a Guantanamo Bay detainee, before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

British Columbia Civil Liberties Assn. v. Canada: The Supreme Court found that administrative segregation is a form of solitary confinement and underscored that the indeterminacy of administrative segregation is a particularly problematic feature that exacerbates its painfulness, increases frustration, and intensifies the depression and hopelessness that is often generated in the restrictive environments that characterize segregation.

Brazeau v. Attorney General: A class action alleging that placing individuals with mental health conditions in “administrative segregation” violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Ontario Superior Court of Justice determined that placing seriously such individuals nto administrative segregation for longer than 30 consecutive days constitutes cruel and unusual treatment or punishment. 

Canadian Civil Liberties Association v. Canada?????: Landmark ruling that “prolonged administrative segregation of any inmate, which is segregation for more than 15 consecutive days, does not survive constitutional scrutiny.

Reddock v. Attorney General of Canada: A class action for about 9,000 individuals in Ontario who were subjected to prolonged solitary confinement (over 15 days). The Ontario Superior Court of Justice granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment and ordered the Federal Government to pay $20 million for breaching the class members’ rights.

April 2020:  The Canadian government had intended to appeal the Federal Appeals Courts' decisions to the Supreme Court, but instead decided in April 2020 to submit legislation to Parliament to bring corrections regulations into compliance with the lower courts' decisions.

Supreme Federal Court of Brazil: Special Rapporteur Méndez sent a letter to Justice Rosa Weber of the Supreme Federal Court of Brazil, regarding the constitutionality of the Law 10792, which contemplates a differentiated disciplinary regime in an individual cell for up to 360 days. Statement in Support of Eliminating Designs that Facilitate Torture and Ill-Treatment. In April of 2014 the Special Rapporteur issued a statement in support of the NGO Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR)’s call for an end to designs that facilitate torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The ADPSR petitioned the American Institute of Architects to amend its Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct to prohibit the design of spaces intended for prolonged solitary confinement.

Projects & Events

Unlock the Box Campaign Convening From November 22 – 23, 2019, the ATI, together with the ACLU, co-hosted the Unlock the Box Campaign’s 2019 annual convening. During the two-day event, activists and survivors from across the United States discussed effective strategies for combating the use of solitary confinement in the U.S. and shared their experiences and best-practices. Prof. Mendez gave a presentation on the Revised UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules), the first international legal standard to explicitly include limitations on the use of solitary confinement. Additionally, survivors of solitary confinement, including one survivor who spent 35 years in isolation, shared their personal experiences of their time in solitary confinement and their work to end the practice. 

Symposium on Solitary Confinement On March 26, 2019, in collaboration with American University Washington College of Law’s International Human Rights Law Clinic, the ATI organized a symposium on solitary confinement in the United States entitled Strategies to Combat U.S. Solitary Confinement: Litigation, Legislation, and Regulation. The half-day event included panel presentations by students from the IHRLC and representatives from human rights organizations, as they discussed issues surrounding solitary confinement, including litigation, legislation, and regulation. Prof. Méndez delivered opening remarks and Dr. Craig Haney (UC Santa Cruz, Department of Psychology) gave the keynote address focusing on the mental health effects of prolonged isolation, and former Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, Rick Raemisch, spoke on a spotlight panel where he discussed Colorado’s effort to end long-term solitary confinement. Dr. Haney and Mr. Raemisch are nationally recognized authorities on the issue of solitary confinement. 

Study on Solitary Confinement Partnering with the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice and law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP. The study is a comparative analysis of solitary confinement laws, policies, regulations, and practices in 35 jurisdictions. The study's results were published in the report: “Seeing into Solitary: A Review of the Laws and Policies of Certain Nations Regarding Solitary Confinement of Detainees.

Part 2 of the study was initiated in July of 2017. Analysis of solitary confinement in 26 additional jurisdictions in 21 countries around the world and 5 jurisdictions in the United States was completed in 2021 and the results were published in the report, Seeing into "Solitary II: A Further Review of Solitary Confinement in Certain Nations."

October 11, 2016: Side Event, “Seeing Into Solitary” at the United Nations 71st General Assembly in New York City, USA. The side event introduced and involved a discussion of the study that the Special Rapporteur commissioned from the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice and that was completed pro bono by the international law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP. The study provided a comparative analysis of solitary confinement in 35 jurisdictions across the globe, and culminated in a report entitled, “Seeing into Solitary.”

Resources & News

Special Rapporteur Against Torture’s UN Report on Solitary Confinement (Aug. 5, 2011)

Sharon Shalev, Libro de Referencia sobre Aislamento Solitario (2014), preface by Professor Méndez

Istanbul Statement on the use and effects of Solitary Confinement (Dec. 9, 2007), adopted at the International Psychological Trauma Symposium in Istanbul, Turkey.

Democracy Now, Time for Compassion? Aging Political Prisoner Suffers from Illness, Decades in Solitary Confinement (Dec. 23, 2013).

Los Angeles Times, U.N. Torture Investigator seeks access to California Prisons (Oct. 18, 2013).