Shine A Light

Solitary confinement and avoidable harm

Enforced isolation makes people ill and increases the risk of self harm. For one former governor a new report from the Prison Reform Trust is uncomfortable reading.

Peter Dawson
17 December 2015
prison cell

White Noise and Shadow, HM Prison Lindholme, G4S Silver Award for Oil or Acrylic 2010 - image courtesy of the Koestler Trust

As a prison governor, I spent a good deal of the last decade as a regular visitor to the segregation unit in three different prisons. These are the units which hold people undergoing punishment alongside people too vulnerable to cope in the rest of the prison, often the scene of both extreme violence and extreme distress. I signed countless documents giving authority for another human being to be kept apart from their peers in these units for most of the day, sometimes for weeks on end. I passed judgement on prisoners that I had found guilty of disciplinary offences in hearings lasting a few minutes, and sentenced them to effective isolation for anything up to a month.  I told prisoners that they would stay in segregation because of intelligence that I would not disclose. And, truth be told, I did it all with a pretty clear conscience.

But it feels uncomfortable to be reading the weighty “Deep Custody” report published this week by the Prison Reform Trust, where I now sit as its deputy director. Nothing in the report is unfamiliar. Indeed, it commands credibility for the measured and knowledgeable picture it paints of life in 15 different prison “segs”. It rightly compliments the skills of many staff who work in these most challenging and complex environments. It minutely describes the dilemmas a closed community faces in tackling problems of extreme aggression and extreme vulnerability.

So why the feeling of unease?

Because the report’s uncompromising conclusion is that, for all the mitigation afforded by good staff doing their best, and the explanations of dwindling resources and ever more complex operational challenge, too many prisoners are spending too long in conditions that cause avoidable harm.

prison cell

Picture by Edmund Clark/PRT

There have been scandals. Historically, some segregation units have lost their moral compass, and terrible things have been done to prisoners. That is still a risk, although it is both less common and less likely nowadays. But we risk equating the absence of blatant abuse with success. In reality, over half the prisoners interviewed for “Deep Custody” reported three or more mental health problems, bearing out the international evidence that enforced isolation makes people ill and increases the risk of self harm. Most prisoners did not get anywhere near the hour a day in the open air required by both European and UN minimum standards. Access to education or work was almost non-existent.

I remember nodding approvingly when I was told as a governor that all seg prisoners had had their “regime” for the day. What that actually meant was a shower, 20 minutes walking round a yard (if it wasn’t raining), walking 10 yards to collect two meals, and making a phone call if they had any phone credit left (not likely when they had no means to earn it). In prison, it’s called “conditioning” – coming to accept as normal something which really isn’t. And there were occasions when I was conditioned to stop seeing the damage that life in an orderly, well regulated segregation unit still does to people.


“Deep Custody” reaches another conclusion which should have startled me but didn’t. This was that over a third of the prisoners interviewed had deliberately engineered their move to segregation. It’s normal. Someone who has debts on the wing, the person desperate to be transferred to another prison, the man who can no longer put up with his cell mate and is terrified of doing them harm when their patience snaps – for some people finding a way into segregation is part of life in prison. But what that shows is that “ordinary location” – where the vast majority of prisoners live – is failing in one way or another. It’s the equivalent of you or I walking into a police station and demanding to be locked up; it shows us that the prison community is not as safe or effective as it should be.


And what about the safeguards which are properly built in to this rule-dominated environment? Just 9 of 67 prisoners interviewed felt that the Independent Monitoring Board – whose tasks include visiting prisoners in segregation – had helped them. The quality of health screening, crucial given the risks to health of segregation, was often poor.

“Deep Custody” finds much to praise, and I was neither wicked nor negligent when I spent all that time in segregation. But I was conditioned, and the message of this report is that I may not be alone in that. It challenges the prison service both to reduce the use of segregation and to make the experience of segregation radically different when it cannot be avoided altogether. The segregation unit remains a reliable barometer for the health of the whole institution; this study tells us there is much still to reform.


Deep Custody: Segregation Units and Close Supervision Centres in England and Wales is available here in PDF.The study, supported by the Barrow Cadbury Trust, was carried out by Dr Sharon Shalev of the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford and Dr Kimmett Edgar of the Prison Reform Trust. 

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