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Solitary Confinement: International Norms and Health Consequences

This section examines Tunisia’s record in light of international human rights treaties and norms applicable to the placement of prisoners in isolation regimes. 

By invoking these standards Human Rights Watch is not accepting that the political prisoners whom Tunisia has placed in isolation belong there – or even for that matter, that they belong in prison in the first place.  As noted above, Human Rights Watch calls first and foremost for their release from prison and, pending that, for their release from isolation except where it can be shown that a particular individual poses a serious danger to the orderly functioning of the prison, and that less drastic means are unavailable to mitigate that danger.

Tunisian authorities claim that prisoners are well-treated in their country. For example, in response to a complaint filed by an ex-prisoner before the U.N. Committee on Torture, the government responded (according to the U.N.’s official summary of the arguments) that “prisoners' rights are scrupulously protected in Tunisia, without any discrimination, whatever the status of the prisoner, in a context of respect for human dignity, in accordance with international standards and Tunisian legislation.” Authorities maintained that Tunisian regulations governing prison establishments “conform to relevant international standards.”40

In a directive dated December 24, 1991, then-Minister of Interior Abdallah al-Kallel instructed security force members to comply wholly with all of the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, “within the framework of Tunisia’s New Era in the realm of democracy and human rights protection.”41 Though not a treaty itself, the Standard Minimum Rules are the most widely accepted set of standards governing the treatment of prisoners consistent with human rights principles.42

The placement of political prisoners in long-term solitary confinement, and the inhuman conditions of their confinement, violate Tunisia’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  They also fall well short of international norms on the treatment of prisoners.

Article 10 of the ICCPR states, “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”  The conditions of solitary confinement in Tunisia, with its enforced, round-the-clock solitude, deprivation of vocational, educational, and meaningful activities that are often available to other prisoners, the arbitrary restrictions on reading and writing materials, the lockdown in small cells that often lack a window to the outside, and the failure to provide inmates at least one hour daily outside their cramped cells, all deny the inmate the ability to carry out a minimum range of social, intellectual, manual, and physical activities that are fundamental parts of human life. 

In the more extreme cases, where inmates have been in isolation almost without interruption for thirteen years and face such restrictions as a near-total ban on paper to write on, the treatment amounts to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” as proscribed by Article 7 of the ICCPR. The Committee on Human Rights states in its General Comment 20 on that article (dated March 10, 1992), “prolonged solitary confinement of the detained or imprisoned person may amount to acts prohibited by article 7.” 

The ICCPR was incorporated into Tunisian law by law no. 68-30 of December 29, 1968. 

According to Article 32 of the Tunisian Constitution, all duly ratified treaties “shall have authority over and above [domestic] laws.”  Tunisia has also ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (the Convention against Torture).    

International norms governing the treatment of prisoners underscore that solitary confinement, whether imposed for punitive or preventive reasons, is by nature an extreme measure that requires close monitoring to minimize the risks of abuse and of harm to the physical and mental health of the prisoner.

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) — the expert body associated with the Council of Europe — has noted, “It is generally acknowledged that all forms of solitary confinement without appropriate mental and physical stimulation are likely, in the long-term, to have damaging effects resulting in deterioration of mental faculties and social abilities.”43 It has reminded European governments:

The principle of proportionality calls for a balance to be struck between the requirement of the case and the application of a solitary confinement-type regime, which is a step that can have very harmful consequences for the person concerned. Solitary confinement can, in certain circumstances, amount to inhuman and degrading treatment; in any event, all forms of solitary confinement should last for as short a time as possible.44

The U.N. Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners45 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.” 

Tunisian officials have not provided a justification for confining selected political prisoners in isolation for months and sometimes years.  If it is being imposed as a form of punishment, it violates Tunisian law, which forbids solitary confinement as a punishment for more than ten-day periods. If it is justified as “preventive” rather than punitive in nature, it violates basic norms surrounding solitary confinement.  Those norms require that decisions to impose solitary confinement be subject to regular and transparent reviews, and that prisoners confined preventively rather than punitively should actually be accorded conditions or privileges designed to compensate for the hardship of isolation.

The case for measures to mitigate the effects of segregation derives from the Standard Minimum Rules, which state, as a guiding principle:

Imprisonment and other measures which result in cutting off an offender from the outside world are afflictive by the very fact of taking from the person the right of self-determination by depriving him of his liberty. Therefore the prison system shall not, except as incidental to justifiable segregation or the maintenance of discipline, aggravate the suffering inherent in such a situation. [Article 57, italics added.]

Thus, according to the Standard Minimum Rules, disciplinary rules inside the prison are legitimate when they assist in the proper functioning of the prison, but not as an extrajudicial form of punishment. Article 27 states, “Discipline shall be maintained with firmness, but with no more restriction than is necessary for safe custody and well-ordered community life.”

The U.N. Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners46 reiterates this basic point in another way:

Except for those limitations that are demonstrably necessitated by the fact of incarceration, all prisoners shall retain the human rights and fundamental freedoms set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and, where the State concerned is a party, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Optional Protocol thereto, as well as such other rights as are set out in other United Nations covenants.

Applying these principles to prisoners in isolation regimes, the CPT concludes that the hardship of isolation entitles them to compensatory amenities or opportunities:

Prisoners who present a particularly high security risk should, within the confines of their detention units, enjoy a relatively relaxed regime by way of compensation for their severe custodial situation.  In particular, they should be able to meet their fellow prisoners in the unit and be granted a good deal of choice about activities.  Special efforts should be made to develop a good internal atmosphere within high-security units.  The aim should be to build positive relations between staff and prisoners….

The existence of a satisfactory programme of activities is just as important – if not more so – in a high security unit than on [sic] a normal location.  It can do much to counter the deleterious effects upon a prisoner’s personality of living in the bubble-like atmosphere of such a unit.  The activities provided should be as diverse as possible (education, sport, work of vocational value, etc.).47

In Tunisia, prisoners placed in isolation benefit from no special conditions intended to alleviate the hardship of being isolated; on the contrary, the restrictions they confront while segregated seem often to be both arbitrary and designed to heighten their isolation from people and information.

The Standard Minimum Rules state, in Article 66, that to prepare the prisoner for his release, “all appropriate means shall be used, including … education, vocational guidance and training… in accordance with the individual needs of each prisoner…” In this spirit, Tunisia’s 2001 Prison Law states, in Article 19, that the inmate is entitled to “access to written documents that enable him to pursue, from within the prison, programs of study at educational institutions; instructional, cultural and awareness training provided by the prison administration…cultural and athletic activities supervised by a qualified trained civil servant,…according to the means that are available; leisure activities consistent with prison regulations; work that is remunerated, according to the means available.”

While Tunisia touts its programs to rehabilitate inmates and prepare them for their return to life outside, prisoners in isolation are unable to leave their cells to participate in programs such as these.  (As political prisoners, they would of course reject the notion that they are in need of any rehabilitation.) 

The Standard Minimum Rules state, in Article 40. “Every institution shall have a library for the use of all categories of prisoners, adequately stocked with both recreational and instructional books, and prisoners shall be encouraged to make full use of it.” For prisoners in solitary confinement, access to the prison library is severely limited, and requests to obtain books and periodicals from outside are subject to arbitrary censorship.

The cells where they spend twenty-three or more hours daily do not comport with the Standard Minimum Rules.  For example, Article 11 states, “In all places where prisoners are required to live or work, the windows shall be large enough to enable the prisoners to read or work by natural light, and shall be so constructed that they can allow the entrance of fresh air whether or not there is artificial ventilation.”

Nor do most prisoners in isolation enjoy the minimum outdoor time stipulated by the Standard Minimum Rules. Article 21(1) states, “Every prisoner who is not employed in outdoor work shall have at least one hour of suitable exercise in the open air daily if the weather permits.”  This one-hour minimum is found also in Tunisia’s 2001 prison law, in article 19(4).

The CPT observed about outdoor exercise:

The requirement that prisoners be allowed at least one hour of exercise in the open air every day is widely accepted as a basic safeguard (preferably it should form part of a broader programme of activities.) The CPT wishes to emphasize that all prisoners without exception (including those undergoing cellular confinement as a punishment) should be offered the possibility to take outdoor exercise daily. It is also axiomatic that outdoor exercise facilities should be reasonably spacious and whenever possible offer shelter from inclement weather.48 [boldface in the original]

Our interviews suggest that while prison administrations give each prisoner in isolation a daily period out of his cell, most consistently get less than sixty minutes.

The Standard Minimum Rules state, in Article 37, that inmates are to permitted, “under necessary supervision” to correspond with their family at “regular” intervals.  Yet in practice, mail delivery is often delayed for weeks or months, or does not arrive at all.

Decisions to place an inmate in solitary confinement should, in light of the gravity of such a decision, be transparent and subject to review and to appeals by the inmate in question.   The CPT states:

It is axiomatic that prisoners should not be subject to a special security regime any longer than the risk they present makes necessary.  This calls for regular reviews of placement decisions.  Such reviews should always be based on the continuous assessment of the individual prisoner by staff specially trained to carry out such assessment.  Moreover, prisoners should as far as possible be kept fully informed of the reasons for their placement and, if necessary, its renewal; this will inter alia enable them to make effective use of avenues for challenging that measure.49

In Tunisia, none of the prisoners’ relatives we interviewed knew of any formal procedure for reviewing decisions on solitary confinement.

Many penal experts believe that a regime of extreme social isolation, idleness, and reduced mental stimulation endangers mental and physical health. According to these experts, all prisoners need stimulation to the brain and senses provided by a range of human contact and some variety of activity and environment.  The potential risk to mental health depends on each prisoner’s prior psychological strengths and weaknesses, the extent of the social isolation imposed, the absence of activities and stimulation, and the duration of confinement.

The European Commission for Human Rights, an organ of the Council of Europe later absorbed into the European Court of Human Rights, stated that "the international literature on criminology and psychology indicate that isolation can be sufficient in itself gravely to impair physical and mental health. The following conditions may be diagnosed: chronic apathy, fatigue, emotional instability, difficulties of concentration, and diminution of mental faculties." 50

Criminologist Hans Toch observes, “unmitigated isolation is indisputably stressful, and it reliably overtaxes the resilience of many incarcerated offenders.”51  Psychologist Craig Haney notes:

Empirical research on solitary…confinement has consistently and unequivocally documented the harmful consequences of living in these kinds of environments …. Evidence of these negative psychological effects comes from personal accounts, descriptive studies, and systematic research…conducted over a period of four decades, by researchers from several different continents….52

An American federal judge has ruled that prolonged solitary confinement “may press the outer bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate.”53  Even if they have no prior history of mental illness, prisoners subjected to prolonged isolation may experience depression, despair, anxiety, rage, claustrophobia, hallucinations, problems with impulse control, and/or an impaired ability to think, concentrate, or remember.54

A statement by Dr. Stuart Grassian submitted to the court in a 1995 case brought by prisoners against officials at Pelican Bay Prison in California, the United States, asserted, "Solitary and small group confinement can cause severe psychiatric harm in the form of a specific syndrome that has been reported by many clinicians in a variety of settings.”55

Recognizing the health risks, the Standard Minimum Rules state, in Article 32: 

Punishment by close confinement or reduction of diet shall never be inflicted unless the medical officer has examined the prisoner and certified in writing that he is fit to sustain it….The medical officer shall visit daily prisoners undergoing such punishments and shall advise the director if he considers the termination or alteration of the punishment necessary on grounds of physical or mental health.

Tunisia’s prison law in Article 22 also requires that the prison physician pre-approve decisions to place inmates in solitary confinement as punishment, and to oversee their implementation.  However, the political prisoners in prolonged solitary confinement are not placed there as an Article 22 punishment and are not, to our knowledge, visited regularly by prison physicians.

Both solitary confinement and small-group isolation are practiced in Tunisia.  The latter involves confining prisoners to a cell with a small number of cell-mates, all of whom are prevented from seeing other inmates or accessing prison facilities.  (See, e.g., the case of Ridha Saïdi, above.)  Small-group isolation is, generally speaking, a regime less severe than solitary confinement.  But it too can amount to ill-treatment that is potentially harmful to an inmate’s mental health if, as in Tunisia, it allows him little or no access to educational or recreational activities, or other sources of mental stimulation, and confines him to a monotonous, unvaried environment and interaction with a strictly limited group of cell-mates.56

Prison expert Andrew Coyle writes:

[Placing] violent and disruptive prisoners…in isolated conditions, either on their own or with one or two other prisoners…is not good practice.... A much more positive model is that of housing problem prisoners in small units of up to ten prisoners, based on the premise that it is possible to provide a positive regime for disruptive prisoners by confining them to “group isolation” rather than individual segregation…. The intention is that, within a secure perimeter, prisoners should be able to move relatively freely within the units and to have a normal prison routine.  In such an environment, prisoners will only be placed in isolation when all else fails and then only for a short period of time.57

Tunisia’s policy of targeting specific prisoners for long-term segregation from the rest of the prison population, whether in solitary or in small-group confinement, stands in stark contrast to the claim that its prisons comply with international standards.

[40] Bouabdallah Ltaief v. Tunisia, 189/2001, U.N. Committee against Torture, decision of 14 November 2003 [online], (retrieved June 9, 2004).

[41] Directive (circulaire) of the Minister of Interior No. 904, December 24, 1991.

[42] Adopted by the First United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, held at Geneva in 1955, and approved by the Economic and Social Council by its resolution 663 C (XXIV) of 31 July 1957 and 2076 (LXII) of 13 May 1977.

[43] European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Report to the Finnish Government on the Visit to Finland, conducted between 10 and 20 May 1992, Strasbourg, France, 1 April 1993, CPT/Inf (93) 8.

[44] European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 2nd General Report, CPT/Inf(92)3, p.20. 

[45] Adopted by the U.N. General Assembly, G.A. res. 45/111, annex, 45 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49A) at 200, U.N. Doc. A/45/49 (1990).

[46] Adopted by the U.N. General Assembly, G.A. res. 45/111, annex, 45 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49A) at 200, U.N. Doc. A/45/49 (1990).

[47], section 10/66.

[48] European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 2nd General Report, CPT/Inf(92)3, p.18.

[49] CPT/Inf/C (2002)1 [Rev.2003] at p. 28

[50] Commission ruling on Applications 7572/76, 7586/76 and 7587/76 by Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader, and Jan Raspe.

[51] Hans Toch, “Future of Supermax Confinement,” The Prison Journal, vol. 81, no. 3 (September 2001), p. 378.

[52] Craig Haney, “Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and ‘Supermax’ Confinement,” Crime & Delinquency, vol. 49, no. 1 (January 2003), p. 130.

[53] Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146 (N.D. California, 1995).

[54] Stuart Grassian and N. Friedman, “Effects of Sensory Deprivation in Psychiatric Seclusion and Solitary Confinement,” International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, vol. 8 (1986), pp. 49-65; Grassian, “Psychopathological Effects of Solitary Confinement,” American Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 140 (1983), pp. 1450-1454.

[55] Madrid v Gomez 889 F. Supp. 1146, N.D.Cal.1995.

[56] See Human Rights Watch, “Small Group Isolation in Turkish Prisons: An Avoidable Disaster,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol., no. 8, May 2000.

[57] Andrew Coyle, A Human Rights Approach to Prison Management: Handbook for Prison Staff, (London: International Centre for Prison Studies, 2002), p. 73 (online), (retrieved June 9, 2004).

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