UN torture expert: No solitary confinement for people with mental disabilities

21 October 2011, Budapest, Hungary. MDAC welcomes Wednesday’s statement by Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, to the UN General Assembly recommending solitary confinement be banned in all but exceptional circumstances.

In his report, originally issued in August 2011, Mr Méndez defines solitary confinement as “the physical and social isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day”. He highlights individuals who are places into positions of considerable vulnerability: (a) lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, (b) juveniles and (c) people with mental disabilities. Mr Méndez says that people with disabilities are sometimes held in solitary confinement “as a substitute for proper medical or psychiatric care or owing to the lack of other institutional housing options”. He points to research findings which indicate that solitary confinement can result in “severe exacerbation of a previously existing mental condition,” as well as a dramatic deterioration of prisoners with mental health issues.

Oliver Lewis, MDAC Executive Director said, “We recommend Mr Méndez’s report to Ministers of Justice and Ministers of Health in all countries. They should think creatively with people with disabilities about how to end the use of solitary confinement of people with disabilities in penitentiary institutions, and in other places of detention too.”

MDAC particularly welcomes the link made in the report between solitary confinement and the harm caused by social isolation. Social isolation is a common feature of many institutions which house people with intellectual disabilities or people with psycho-social disabilities. These institutions may be prisons, psychiatric hospitals or social care homes. In MDAC’s experience, the public’s access to such institutions is often limited and the right of inmates/patients to have contact to the outside world is often curtailed. These factors make it difficult for people to return to the community. Furthermore, the risk of abuses and ill-treatment is heightened in such places of detention, where human rights violations can take place with frequency and impunity.

Mr Méndez’s robust approach to solitary confinement follows a ground-breaking report in 2008 by Manfred Nowak, the previous UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. His report highlighted how people with disabilities are held in solitary confinement in psychiatric and social care institutions for control and punishment, and noted that the prolonged use of such confinement may constitute torture or ill-treatment which is an absolute right for which no justifications are accepted.

For more on MDAC’s work to prevent torture against people with disabilities, contact mdac@mdac.org. MDAC’s work on detention monitoring is kindly funded by Zennström Philanthropies.

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