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Shorter periods of solitary confinement in Irish prisons due to evidence of harm on prisoners’ well-being

Monday, 7 March, 2016

Solitary confinement in Irish prisons is used either to discipline “troublesome” prisoners or to protect them when an outside gang-related event “follows” them inside.

But, according to Professor Ian O’Donnell, UCD Sutherland School of Law, solitary confinement is responsible for a range of psychological harms.

“When opportunities for meaningful human engagement are stripped away, mental health difficulties arise with disturbing regularity,” says Professor O’Donnell who wrote to, visited and interviewed many prisoners to investigate their coping strategies to “make a long period of isolation tolerable”.

He found that some prisoners fill their time with activities like reading, writing and exercise to “impose their own timetable on top of the prison timetable” and give structure to their days in solitary.

Others “immerse themselves in the present” and try not to look back on the crime that led to their sentence or plan a future that they have little control over. Instead their priority is “to focus on today and managing today’s challenges and then to repeat that process the following day and so on”.

In response to a growing body of evidence that solitary confinement is harmful to the psychological well-being of prisoners, the (opens in a new window)Irish Prison Service has made a policy decision to reduce the number of prisoners who are put into solitary confinement and the length of time they spend there.

The United Nations recommends that solitary confinement should be applied for no more than 15 consecutive days.

“If the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Torture feels that this is a period beyond which damage starts to set in, it would be terrific if the Irish Prison Service accepted that threshold and tried to ensure that the solitary period did not go beyond it,” advises Professor O’Donnell whose most recent work (opens in a new window)Prisoners, Solitude, and Time is published by Oxford University Press.


After meeting men and women who had been kept in single cells, exercised alone in small yards and never saw the face of another inmate for years, the novelist Charles Dickens said:

“I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay” (1842).

By: Dominic Martella, UCD University Relations