The Malta Independent 29 July 2021, Thursday

This is torture, no two ways about it

Andrew Azzopardi Wednesday, 23 June 2021, 07:38 Last update: about 2 months ago

A reform that will remove solitary confinement is long over-due. This has been an issue that has been disturbing me for quite some time now. Solitary confinement, from where I stand, is a breach of human rights.

There is absolutely nothing which is beneficial in this oppressive practice. Whilst it is important to create awareness and open a debate, at the same time we need to push for legislative changes to preclude the State from using this mechanism as a tool for heightened oppression. Our criminal justice system needs to invest in rehabilitative structures and social care services to ensure that we have inmates who go through the system and are better positioned to behave as active and responsible citizens instead of the other way around. Methods based on fear and distress do nothing to contribute to that.


What my colleagues, Dr Ruth Farrugia, Jamie Bonnici and former Master of Advocacy students from the Faculty of Laws, Maria Mizzi, Martina Micallef, and myself are recommending, after consulting with a criminologist, a social psychologist, a forensic psychologist, former prison officials and people who experienced solitary, is that Article 9 is replaced with: Solitary or cellular confinement as a punishment is hereby repealed and may only be resorted to as restrictive care in terms of the Mental Health Act Chapter 525.

It is proposed that an overhaul of Chapter 9 of the Laws of Malta, as well as the Subsidiary Legislation 260.03 – Prisons Regulations, is undertaken by the relevant authorities. This would

include the revision of legal clauses, including, but not limited to:

“9. (1) The punishment of solitary confinement is carried into effect by keeping the person sentenced to imprisonment, during one or more terms in the course of any such punishment, continuously shut up in the appointed place within the prison, without permitting any other person, not employed on duty nor specially authorized by the Minister responsible for the prisons, to have access to him. (2) No term of solitary confinement shall exceed ten continuous days.” (Laws of Malta, Chapter 9)


“78. (1) If the Director finds a prisoner guilty of an offence against discipline he may impose one or more of the following punishments: […] (f) cellular confinement not exceeding thirty days” (Prisons Regulations – Subsidiary Legislation 260.03)

Defining ‘solitary confinement’ at this point is fundamental.

As we explained in the position document presented to the Members of Parliament and the Parliamentary Committees for Social Affairs and Family Affairs, solitary confinement is generally associated with conditions of extreme, although not total, isolation from others (Haney, 2018) which should include one hour of exercise in a sufficiently large area, although it has been noted that “exercise areas used by the prisoners [in Solitary Confinement] are also frequently inadequate” (Council of Europe, 2011, p. 6). This has also been the experience narrated by a number of prisoners to the authors of this report. Solitary confinement has also been referred to in the literature as segregation, the hole, isolation, supermax, amongst others. Although there is no single definition that has been widely accepted, the term ‘solitary confinement’ has been habitually defined as:

“the physical isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day. In many jurisdictions, prisoners are allowed out of their cells for one hour of solitary exercise. Meaningful contact with others is typically reduced to a minimum. The reduction in stimuli is not only quantitative but also qualitative. Available stimuli and the occasional social contacts are seldom freely chosen, are generally monotonous, and are often not empathetic.” (Ayan et al., 2007, p. 1)

A substantial body of empirical evidence has demonstrated that individuals subjected to solitary confinement (SC) experience significant detrimental effects on their physiological and psychological wellbeing, which can occur after only a few days (Shalev, 2008), namely;

·         SC leads to severe damage to the individual’s emotional state which occurs due to being locked up in a sub-standard setting, as well as significant physical changes in the brain. The hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory and regulating bodily responses to stress, becomes reduced in size, and the amygdala, responsible for the body’s stress response and emotional state, demonstrates an increased productivity (Lobel & Akil, 2018).

·         SC leads to an increased frequency of emotional outbursts, with the prisoner being rendered into a state of anxiety and depression.

·         SC leads to adverse physical effects and also causes the prisoner to become hypersensitive to stimuli such as light and sound, as well as experiencing muscle atrophy and lethargy due to their lack of physical activity (Azyvoloski, 2018).

·         There has also been evidence of long-term physical effects of SC, such as complications with prisoners’ eyesight occurring as a result of being confined in a small space devoid of natural light (Shalev, 2008).

·         SC leads to long-term social effects, which some experts have referred to as ‘social death’ (Haney, 2019) or ‘isolation syndrome’ (Haney, 2003) and subsequently suffer from ‘sociophobia’, losing the ability to interact with other human beings.

·         SC leads to psychological effects which include hyper-responsivity; hallucinations, illusions and distortion of time; panic attacks; memory loss and concentration problems; intrusive thoughts; paranoia; and violent episodes (Grassian, 2006).

·         SC is used as a form of punishment in prisons, it renders prisoners to become entirely at the mercy of prison officials in order to meet their basic needs, thereby creating a sense of inadequacy and humiliation.

·         SC as a practice is counterproductive to its aims and could instill a deeper sense of distrust towards the justice system and society at large.

·         The financial costs of using SC are much higher than the cost of incarceration - one analysis revealed that holding a prisoner in SC incurs more than double the cost.

·         Many prisoners who have been placed in SC and eventually complete their prison sentence, experience a greater likelihood of drug or alcohol abuse, including relapsing, in order to cope with the trauma.

·         Several prisoners have also reported sustained frequency and severity of psychiatric symptoms due to being held in SC, which lasted for more than two years following their release from prison (Brunner et al., 2017).

·         Taken together, the multitude of detrimental and lasting effects from SC would likely impede their successful reintegration into functioning members of society.

“This is the opposite of what prison systems have to achieve, which is the inclusion of detainees in the society, and their resocialization.” (Haney, 2003, cited in Brioschi & Paterniti Martello, 2021, p. 23). 

We want systems that create fewer victims.



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