Denmark’s extensive and disproportionate use of solitary confinement to punish prisoners for relatively minor breaches of prison rules, such as smoking or swearing, is incompatible with its international obligations to prohibit inhuman or degrading punishment, the IRCT said today, backing calls by Danish NGOs that the practice be abolished.
“The use of solitary confinement has risen over the past 10 years. Denmark has one of Europe’s strictest prison systems and we have received international criticism for the use of such punishment cells,” said Rasmus Grue Christensen, CEO of Dignity, an IRCT member in Denmark. “We’re here to discuss how we can create Danish prisons with much less use of solitary confinement and therefore better possibilities for re-socialisation of prisoners.”
Emil, a Danish former prisoner, said it took him six months to recover from the psychological impact of solitary confinement.
Dignity has long campaigned to reduce the use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure in Danish prisons, and on 1 September held a conference in Copenhagen bringing together the Danish Institute for Human Rights, MPs, the Director General of Prisons and Probation, and experts from Norway and Sweden, where such punishment has been abolished.
To learn more about Dignity’s campaign on the issue, please click here.
The use of solitary confinement as a punishment has quadrupled in Danish prisons since 2001, rising to more than 4,000 cases each year since 2019, according to official figures. The extended use of such punishment has also increased drastically: In 2015, there were just seven cases of solitary confinement for more than 15 days. By 2019, that number had risen to 705.
As well as punishing violent behaviour by inmates, prison officers have been increasingly using solitary confinement against individuals caught with prohibited items such as mobile phones or cigarettes, or who utter swear words, even if only to themselves.
“Prison officers have lost the discretion they used to have over when to use these punishments,” said Karina Lorentzen Dehnhardt, MP for Denmark’s Socialist People's Party. “Now they punish a prisoner simply for swearing to himself when his girlfriend is walking away after a visit […] We need a rethink, because solitary confinement is not the answer to very much.”
Ina Eliasen, Director General of Prisons and Probation in Denmark told the conference it was important for prisons to be able to punish rule breaking in order to keep staff and other inmates safe, but recognised the use of solitary confinement was “very high” and was driven by the 2015 terror attack in Copenhagen, and a general pressure on the prison system. “We are lacking resources in the prison service. We have a lot of inmates and crowded cells and we need more prison officers,” said Eliasen. “We have a lot of inmates who are gang members, and many more who act in a similar way, and this has also been a driver of increased use of disciplinary sanctions.”
Solitary confinement can mean isolation from all other prisoners in a single cell for up to 23 hours a day, with one hour for exercise. For an adult in Denmark the punishment can last for up to four weeks, while for a young person under 18 the punishment can last for a week, or up to four weeks in exceptional circumstances. Dignity has helped document the grave health consequences of solitary confinement, including increased risk of depression and suicide among inmates and increased risk of mortality once released.
The UN's Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules, require that solitary confinement must never last more than 15 consecutive days, and must not be used on children or young people. The Committee Against Torture, the monitoring body of the Convention Against Torture (CAT), has stated that solitary confinement may constitute torture or inhuman treatment and “should be regulated as a measure of last resort to be applied in exceptional circumstances, for as short a time as possible”. Denmark ratified the CAT in 1987 and has endorsed the Mandela Rules.
Read an account of 38 days in solitary confinement in Iran at the IRCT’s Torture Journal here.
“As soon as the door closed behind me I could feel the effect, the dread in my body and the psychological impact of knowing I could not get those things I was used to, and could not see anyone,” said Emil, a Danish former prisoner describing his experience of solitary confinement as punishment for failing a drugs test and keeping a mobile phone in his cell.
“I understand there needs to be rules and that I broke them. But I don’t think punishment cells do anyone any good. It makes you feel like you may as well give up and makes it hard to get back on track when you return to normal prison.”
Emil said that for three months after his release, he would often wake in the night to check the handle of his bedroom door was working, and not locked: “It took about half a year to get it all out of my system.”
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In its latest update to caselaw on prisoner’s rights, the European Court of Human Rights stated that while solitary confinement is not, in itself, a breach of the Convention’s Article 3 prohibition against torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the test for such a breach will depend on “the stringency of the measure, its duration, the objective pursued and its effects on the person concerned.” [para. 216] Even as a disciplinary sanction, the Court ruled that solitary confinement should be ordered “only exceptionally with the necessary procedural safeguards and after every precaution has been taken” [para. 217]. Denmark ratified the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in 1953 and brought it into direct effect in Danish law in 1992.
The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, part of the Council of Europe’s monitoring of the ECHR, has said solitary confinement as an additional severe restriction of personal liberty not inherent in the fact of imprisonment can only be justified if proportionate. Its use as a disciplinary measure therefore “must be linked to the actual or potential harm the prisoner has caused or will cause by his or her actions” and “the level of actual or potential harm must be at least equally serious and uniquely capable of being addressed by this means”. Solitary confinement is thus usually reserved for the most serious disciplinary offences, the Committee noted.