picture shows young man looking out window

Breaking Down Solitary

Back in 2015 the Prison Reform Trust published Deep Custody, a lengthy study of segregation units and close supervision centres in prisons in England and Wales. In a foreword to that report Lord Woolf of Barnes wrote: “I read with concern of those prisoners who were seeking the separation and withdrawal represented by segregation as a means to escape from violence and indiscipline on general location in some establishments.”

What does solitary confinement mean? According to international human rights’ law it means staying in your cell without meaningful contact for 22 hours or more each day. The statistics of the Prison Reform Trust report are now at least three years’ old; but what is likely to remain true is that solitary confinement increases mental health problems that include anxiety, depression, anger, difficulty in concentration, insomnia, and an increased risk of self-harm. Despite the increased risks to mental health, conditions inside some prisons are so unstable that some prisoners actually want to be confined in solitary. Of the 85,000 or so people in prison in England and Wales, the vast majority being men, the biggest category – around 25% – is for violence against the person: 37% of prisoners are aged 18-30. Given also that 69% of prisons are overcrowded (according to a 20 April 2017 House of Commons briefing paper on the UK prison population), perhaps it’s understandable that prisoners sometimes seek solitary.

The British Medical Association (BMA), the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have now condemned solitary confinement, arguing that “various studies indicate an increased risk of suicide or self-harm amongst those placed in solitary confinement. As children are still in the crucial stages of developing socially, psychologically and neurologically, there are serious risks of solitary confinement causing long-term psychiatric and developmental harm.” This call by the three medical associations to ban solitary confinement – especially for young people – is noble and understandable; but what if an anxious 17 year-old might actually feel safer in solitary?

There are many risks that come from being in prison but we must think about perhaps the biggest of all: what happens when a prisoner leaves incarceration and tries to return to society? 3SC, as part of the Purple Futures partnership, manages offender facing rehabilitation services delivered by the third sector both in prison and in the community in five areas of the UK. The community based services are highly localised and provide all kinds of support tailored to the needs of each offender to try and stop their offending behaviour. This includes services which specifically work with: offenders whose offences have been alcohol related to support them to stop drinking; individuals who have been victims of domestic violence or sex workers; the whole family as part of a wider support service; offenders who are victims as well as perpetrators receiving counselling support, those who have been in the care system; and BAME offenders.  What all of these share is the provision of hope, that someone cares, that stopping offending is possible rather than a dark void where no-one cares what happens once an offender is released from prison.

The provision of such services requires patience and diligence. Giving hope of a different future, a better future, is one of the greatest gifts imaginable. Our society needs more such hope-providers – and 3SC wants organisations to use its experience and knowledge in bringing passionate third sector organisations delivering such services together to help try and break not only the cycle of offending, but the feeling of being alone and the sense of isolation that can envelop an offender both in and out of prison.