Solitary confinement in Malta: a call for reform

The use of solitary confinement as a ‘last resort’ indicates that all other methods of resolving a situation have failed

This has been an issue that has been disturbing me for quite some time now. Solitary confinement is a breach of human rights. There is nothing which is beneficial in this oppressive practice which is essentially institutionalised torture.

Members of the Faculty for Social Wellbeing in collaboration with colleagues from the Faculty of Laws, through a document published this week, are seeking to push for legislative changes that essentially preclud the State from using this mechanism as a tool for heightened oppression.

Our appeal is for the State to invest in rehabilitative structures and social care services to ensure that we have prison inmates who go through the system and are better positioned to act as active and responsible citizens instead of the other way around. Methods based on fear and distress do nothing to contribute to that.

In truth, in most parts of the world, the issue of solitary confinement has long been one of contention within the area of prison management. The practice of solitary confinement has been shown, through multiple empirical research publications, to be detrimental to prisoners’ wellbeing, resulting in negative effects on their physical, psychological and social health (Shalev, 2008; Brunner et al., 2017), as well as worsening rates of recidivism (Gordon, 2014). Research has shown solitary confinement to be ineffective in reducing violent behaviour or rehabilitating the prisoner, in many cases increasing the chances of re-offending, in particular increasing the risk of a prisoner committing violent crimes (Zgoba et al., 2020), thus revealing that its use is by nature an admission of failure.

The use of solitary confinement as a ‘last resort’ indicates that all other methods of resolving a situation have failed. It is therefore pertinent that alternative courses of action are re-evaluated with a view towards the abolishment of solitary confinement. Add to that it does not work as a deterrent.  In fact, in Malta there is 66% recidivism and 72% if you come from an intergenerational crime family, reported to have amongst the highest rates of suicide in prison and the current population of our facility is hitting the 900-inmate mark.

A substantial body of empirical evidence has demonstrated that individuals subjected to solitary confinement experience significant detrimental effects on their physiological and psychological wellbeing, which can occur after only a few days (Shalev, 2008). Such effects include the obvious severe damage to the individual’s emotional state which occur 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).

These changes in the brain subsequently lead to an increased frequency of emotional outbursts, with the prisoner being rendered into a state of anxiety and depression. The physical effects of Solitary Confinement also cause 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 solitary confinement, such as complications with prisoners’ eyesight occurring as a result of being confined in a small space devoid of natural light (Shalev, 2008). Solitary Confinement can also cause long-term social effects, which some experts have referred to as ‘social death’ (Haney, 2019) or ‘isolation syndrome’ (Haney, 2003). This occurs when detainees who have previously been placed in solitary confinement and subsequently suffer from ‘socio-phobia’ that is, losing the ability to interact with other human beings.

Accordingly, it is suggested that the primary aim of such overhaul would be to remove clauses which allow for Solitary Confinement to be used as a punishment either as part of court sentences discretion, for example by removing the reference to solitary confinement in the following:

“7. (1) Saving the exceptions laid down in the law, the punishments that may be awarded for crimes are - (a) imprisonment; (b) solitary confinement; (c) interdiction; (d) fine (multa).” (Laws of Malta, Chapter 9) and also removing this oppressive practice from the Prison Regulations, and the CCF Inmates Handbook.

In cases where a prisoner suffers from mental health issues and is deemed to require solitary confinement, due to posing a threat to their own safety or that of others around it is being recommended that provisions within the Mental Health Act are used.

This would consist of using restrictive care, with all the relevant safeguards and procedures strictly enforced and duly documented. Assigning priority to the Mental Health Act, instead of the prison regulations, would effectively necessitate that the decision to place a prisoner under restrictive care ceases to be enforced under the discretion of the prison director. Rather, by consulting with the Mental Health Act in relevant cases, this would require that the necessary monitoring and guidance is carried out by psychology professionals, in order to ensure the safety of the individual concerned.