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United States: Prolonged solitary confinement amounts to psychological torture, says UN expert

28 February 2020

GENEVA (28 February 2020) – A UN human rights expert has voiced alarm at the excessive use of solitary confinement by correctional facilities in the United States.

"For years, my mandate has raised concerns about the worldwide overuse of solitary confinement which is subject to widespread arbitrariness", said Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on torture. "My predecessor, Prof. Juan Mendez, has compellingly shown the extent to which such practices could amount to torture."

"Most recently, the practices of the Connecticut Department of Corrections (the DOC) have been brought to my attention."

"The DOC appears to routinely resort to repressive measures, such as prolonged or indefinite isolation, excessive use of in-cell restraints and needlessly intrusive strip searches," the expert said. "There seems to be a State-sanctioned policy aimed at purposefully inflicting severe pain or suffering, physical or mental, which may well amount to torture."

These dehumanising conditions of detention, sometimes euphemistically referred to as "segregation," "secure housing," the "hole" or "lockdown," are routinely used by US correctional facilities, particularly against inmates designated as "high risk" due to previous gang affiliations, behaviour abnormalities or mental conditions.

"These practices trigger and exacerbate psychological suffering, in particular in inmates who may have experienced previous trauma or have mental health conditions or psychosocial disabilities," Melzer noted.

"The severe and often irreparable psychological and physical consequences of solitary confinement and social exclusion are well documented and can range from progressively severe forms of anxiety, stress, and depression to cognitive impairment and suicidal tendencies.

"This deliberate infliction of severe mental pain or suffering may well amount to psychological torture," the Special Rapporteur said.

Inflicting solitary confinement on those with mental or physical disabilities is prohibited under international law. Even if permitted by domestic law, prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement cannot be regarded as a "lawful sanction" under the Mandela Rules.

The Mandela Rules, updated in 2015, are a revised minimum standard of UN rules that defines solitary confinement as "the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact." Solitary confinement may only be imposed in exceptional circumstances, and "prolonged" solitary confinement of more than 15 consecutive days is regarded as a form of torture.

"The Mandela Rules reinforce human rights principles, including the recognition of the absolute prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and effective guidance to national prison administrations for persons deprived of their liberty," Melzer said.

The Special Rapporteur is scheduled to present his report on psychological torture to the Human Rights Council on Friday, 28 February in Geneva. He will hold a press conference at 14:00 on Monday, 2 March at the Palais des Nations, Press Room III, Geneva. Access is strictly limited to accredited media.

This statement has also been endorsed by Dainius Pūras, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health; the UN Working Group on arbitrary detention; and Catalina Devanda-Aguilar, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities.


Mr. Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, is part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent of any government or organisation and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, Country Page – United States of America

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