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Covid Confinement - Evaluating Solitary Confinement as a Criminal Punishment - Gladys Holmes

Having endured over a year now of government-imposed restrictions on personal liberty to curb the case count of covid, the general population is now able to better understand the implications of confinement. This blog will begin by exploring the historical reasoning behind solitary confinement, its effectiveness and psychological impact, and circle back to the current state of Covid-19 and what it entails for inmates who have already been deprived of many rights.

The History of Solitary Confinement

The guillotine was once considered a humane and progressive form of punishment because the death was clean and quick. While historical acts of punishment were physical, the introduction of solitary confinement was similarly seen as an alternative that would bring humanity to the field of punishment. Scholars believed that disassociation from others would remove negative influences of society, and allow time for introspection, in which inmates would begin to experience sorrow and regret their wrongs. In 1829 the first U.S penitentiary implemented isolation, and by 1830 evidence of confinement-induced harms, including psychiatric illness, disease, and death, began accumulating. Regardless of the data, in 1835, Canada opened a new penitentiary in Kingston, Ontario, that operated under confinement principles.


Initial concerns arising in 1830 have not dissipated, and in fact they have intensified. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture concluded that effects of solitary confinement become apparent after mere days, increasing with every day with up to a maximum duration of 15 days, where confinement then becomes cruel torture. As I describe below, effects manifest physically and mentally, while exacerbating an array of any pre-existing health problems.

While the evidence dictates an array of psychiatric harm, do prisoners released from solitary confinement lead a new life of reform? The evidence again negates this theory. Inmates in solitary confinement report increased thoughts of revenge and difficulties with impulse control, leading to random violence. Neuroscientific research describes the deprivations of social interaction and environmental stimulation as having irreversible consequences for physiological brain function due to sensory deprivation. The physical effects of extreme confinement entail a dramatic reduction of sun exposure to absorb vitamin D. For inmates who have been subjected to confinement for prolonged durations, the lack of vitamin D increases the risk of fractures of falls for older adults. Additionally, confinement cells hinder an individual’s ability to exercise appropriately to maintain their health and prevent future health complications.

Since 1830, the adverse bodily effects resulting from solitary confinement have been observed and studied. The United Nations General Assembly released the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, wherein Principle 7 stipulates efforts should be encouraged and undertaken to abolish solitary confinement as a punishment or see it restricted in use. Advocates for human rights have argued tirelessly for abolition, engaged in debate and due process to no avail, prompting the question – why have prisons not yet eliminated the use of solitary confinement as a means of punishment?

Abolition of Solitary Confinement

To evaluate the delay in abolishing the use of solitary confinement in the face of overwhelming condemnatory evidence, types of confinement must be assessed to serve as a foundation for the reasoning. There are two types of solitary confinement: disciplinary segregation and administrative segregation.

Disciplinary segregation is used for inmates who are being punished for acts that they have committed while incarcerated, the duration of which is generally more short-term. Administrative segregation is used for inmates who are considered a danger to other inmates or who need protection from other inmates; such inmates are kept in solitary confinement for much longer durations. Through a legislative framework derived from a combination of rules from the Penitentiary Act of 1970, including some from the Penitentiary Service Regulations, which entails vague rules that are interpreted by Warden discretion; paired with a judicial reluctance to oppose prison official’s’ decisions, a system has arisen which has been described as a “prison system largely immunized from public scrutiny in which prison officials were in a position of virtual invulnerability and absolute power over the persons committed to their institutions.” In 1992 the Corrections and Conditional Release Regulations Act was implemented, which prescribed more humane confinement conditions. However, the operational reality since the enactment has produced a documented history of systemic non-compliance.


Solitary confinement can be minimized by reducing the primary reasons for subjecting an individual to solitary confinement. The need to protect inmates from others and protect others from the inmates in question could be quelled through various means, such as:

  • mediation and dispute resolution processes could address inner-inmate conflict;

  • intervention by cultural community leaders such as Aboriginal elders to liaise; and

  • inmate transfer to other institutions or regions.

Confinement in Covid

Having explored the history and damaging effects of solitary confinement, I find myself in agreement with the many voices calling for an end to this punitive practice. A new issue in this quest for cessation arose as the sudden onset of Covid-19 spread across the globe. Jails and prisons have been deemed one of “the greatest vectors of community transmission and are a point of heightened crisis and fear within the global crisis,” but what is the solution to curb the spread when our jails and prisons are already overcrowded?

New protocols have been implemented following a call from health experts to release all prisoners “based on their risk to the community and vulnerability to covid-19.” For prisoners who remain incarcerated, the World Health Organization recommends that prisons and health agencies make a collaborative effort to mitigate the risk while ensuring their health, safety and human dignity.

News outlets have coined the term “lockdown fatigue,” where law-abiding citizens have either tired from restrictions or reached their limit regarding having their autonomy taken away. Entering this mental state of “lockdown fatigue,” individual commitment to regulations may be lessened or fully ceased, negating any collective progress of reducing disease transmission. An early 2021 study outlined that Covid pandemic restriction efforts in early 2020 were effective. However, attempting to replicate the results from early stages of the pandemic may lead to only transient results due to fatigue. Going forward, it is vital to take lockdown fatigue into consideration in the context of incarceration and consider how it may influence both inmate compliance and guard enforcement. Can confinement be reconciled with the ethical use of medical isolation?

A time to consider abolishing solitary confinement

While it can be challenging to sympathize with criminals, having endured a year of preventative restrictions, the general population of Canada is better situated to reflect on the toll of isolation. We should utilize this time to channel public opinion for the purpose of abolishing solitary confinement and make a valiant effort to bring humanity back into our penitentiaries.


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