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IV. Prolonged Isolation of Prisoners

The men in long-term isolation are mostly political leaders of the Nahdha movement who were tried and convicted in the 1992 mass trial mentioned above, on a charge of plotting the overthrow of the government. While this is of course a grave charge, it does not by itself provide a penological justification for placing these prisoners in solitary confinement. Putting aside for a moment that, in the view of many observers, their trial was unfair and the charges against them were not proven, these individuals were never convicted of actually committing acts of violence. Even if they had been convicted in a fair trial of grave offenses, including violence, this would not be sufficient justification to place them in solitary confinement for preventive or punitive reasons.

Long-term solitary confinement of prisoners is not a lawful form of punishment in Tunisia, neither as a sentence imposed by a court nor as a disciplinary measure imposed by a prison administration. As a court-imposed punishment, isolation, as well as forced labor, was abolished by Law 23 of 1989. All of the prisoners held in long-term isolation during recent years were sentenced after 1989; thus, none is in isolation due to a court-imposed sentence of isolation. Nor is long-term solitary confinement legitimate under Law 2001-52 regulating prisons. That law specifies that solitary confinement as a form of punishment shall not exceed ten days’ duration; it also forbids prison administrators from using any disciplinary measure not listed in the law.9 The prison law in effect prior to Law 2001-52, Decree 88-1876 of 1988, also imposed a ten-day limit on isolation as a form of punishment.

Prison practice worldwide recognizes legitimate preventive reasons for segregating inmates; for example, for the prisoners’ own protection from imminent harm, or if they have a history of attempted escapes, or for violent or disruptive behavior directed toward other inmates or prison staff. To our knowledge, the Tunisian authorities have never presented these sorts of preventive arguments to justify their long-term isolation of political prisoners. Prison administrations may also place inmates in isolation to address a public health threat. Again, the Tunisian government has never invoked such a threat to justify the isolation of political prisoners.

Moreover, international norms require that stricter forms of isolation be imposed only after establishing that less drastic means are unavailable to meet the danger. Some prison experts suggest that one alternative is to place inmates in a small-group setting and for a limited period. But they have in mind inmates with a history of violence in the prison, not political prisoners with no such record.10

International norms require that isolation be subject to regular and transparent reviews, and that prisoners confined preventively rather than punitively should be accorded conditions or privileges designed to compensate for the hardship of isolation. 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 stated:

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.11

There is no evidence that Tunisian authorities have met the conditions just enumerated. Nor, according to the prisoners we interviewed, do they place long-term isolated prisoners under any special medical supervision.  The U.N.’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners 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 allows the placement of a prisoner in solitary confinement as punishment only “after consultation of the prison doctor and for a period not to exceed ten days, during which time the detainee shall remain under the supervision of the doctor, who can request revisions to this measure for health reasons.”

The norms requiring medical oversight are well-founded, in light of the risks posed by prolonged isolation to the prisoner’s mental and physical health. The European Commission for Human Rights, an organ of the Council of Europe later absorbed into the European Court of Human Rights, stated, "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."12

Criminologist Hans Toch observes, “unmitigated isolation is indisputably stressful, and it reliably overtaxes the resilience of many incarcerated offenders.”13 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…14

An American federal judge has ruled that prolonged solitary confinement “may press the outer bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate.”15 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.16

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.”17

[9] Law 2001-52 of May 14, 2001 (published in the Journal officiel de la République Tunisienne of May 18, 2001), Article 22(7). The text of the law in French is posted on the site of Tunezine, an opposition web-magazine, at (retrieved March 29, 2004).

[10] For example, 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.

Andrew Coyle, A Human Rights Approach to Prison Management: Handbook for Prison Staff (London: International Centre for Prison Studies, 2002), p. 73, online at (retrieved March 31, 2005).

[11] European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, The CPT standards:"Substantive" sections of the CPT's General Reports, CPT/Inf/E (2002) 1 – Rev. 2004, p. 28, online at (retrieved March 31, 2005).

[12] Commission ruling on Applications 7572/76, 7586/76 and 7587/76 by Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader, and Jan Raspe. For further information on the health effects of isolation, see Human Rights Watch, Tunisia: Long-Term Confinement of Political Prisoners.

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

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

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

[16] 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.

[17] Madrid v. Gomez 889 F. Supp. 1146.

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