Adverse mental and physical impacts of solitary confinement on Queensland prisoners should result in the practice being abolished, according to a new report.
The report, ‘Legal Perspectives on Solitary Confinement in Queensland’, found many inmates were held in solitary confinement for lengthy periods of time, some for years, while their mental and physical health conditions received minimal or inadequate treatment.
University of Queensland (UQ) Law School researcher Professor Tamara Walsh, who co-authored the report, said the research found solitary confinement caused severe and sometimes permanent psychological harm and worsened pre-existing mental health conditions.
“In solitary confinement prisoners are isolated in their cells for at least 22 hours per day with little to no contact with other (people) and limited mental stimulation and access to fresh air and natural light,” Professor Walsh said.
“It’s not uncommon for these prisoners to show signs of psychosis, engage in self-harm and obsessive-compulsive behaviours, become hypersensitive to noise or develop a fear of open spaces.
“As a result, United Nations bodies have determined solitary confinement should only be used as a last resort for periods of 15 days or less, and courts worldwide have conceded these conditions may breach fundamental human rights.
“However, in Queensland, ‘separate confinement’ is the default option for managing prisoners’ behavioural and mental health issues and there are no hard legal limits on its duration.”
The report is the product of a two-year research project conducted by Professor Walsh, Prisoners’ Legal Service (PLS) Director Helen Blaber and a team of UQ students and PLS volunteers.
Ms Blaber said the study provided empirical research describing the lived experiences of inmates held in solitary confinement.
“A number of recommendations for reform are made (in the report), including that the practice be eliminated and immediate steps be taken to prevent the negative health outcomes that solitary confinement creates for the most vulnerable members of the prison population,” she said.
“During this time of COVID-19 shutdowns and restrictions, it can feel as though we are all in solitary confinement of sorts.
“But for many of our clients in Queensland prisons this is their daily reality – the difference is they have no smart phone or internet; sometimes they don’t even have a pen and paper.”
Professor Walsh said that, based on their findings, the key recommendation of the report was the abolition of solitary confinement.
For more information on the study, including access to the full report, see bel.uq.edu.au/research/human-rights/solitary-confinement.