Solitary confinement is defined by the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Mandela Rules) as confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact. The effects of solitary confinement on children can be particularly severe. This blog outlines these damaging effects. It also summarises the applicable international legal framework, including a key reference to the International Criminal Court.
On 7 December 2021, the West Bank based human rights organisation Military Court Watch (MCW) published a report titled ‘Solitary Confinement’, reporting that the percentage of Palestinian children kept in solitary confinement while held in Israeli military detention has markedly risen from a historical average of less than 4%, to nearly 20%, between January 2019 and May 2021. The report estimates that between 100 to 200 children are being held in solitary confinement by Israel’s military authorities each year.
MCW’s report found that of the children whose testimony was taken, most were aged 16-17 at the time of solitary confinement, but some were as young as 13-years-old. The average length of solitary confinement was 10.5 days, with a maximum of 30 days.
The report documents the adverse psychological and physical impacts of solitary confinement on children, including weight loss, self-harm, and attempted suicide.
Israel’s military arrest and detention of Palestinian children living in the occupied Palestinian territory is a major and long-standing human rights problem. Around 500-700 Palestinian children, some as young as 12 years old, are arrested, detained and prosecuted in Israel’s military detention system each year. The majority of children are detained from their homes in the occupied West Bank during the middle of the night by heavily armed soldiers. Several hours after their arrest, children arrive at an interrogation and detention centre alone, sleep deprived and often bruised and scared. Interrogations tend to be coercive, including a variety of verbal abuse, threats and physical violence, that ultimately result in a confession.
In UNICEF’s March 2013 report, “Children in Israeli Military Detention: Observations and Recommendations”, UNICEF concluded that:
“the ill-treatment of [Palestinian] children who come in contact with the military detention system appears to be widespread, systematic and institutionalized throughout the process, from the moment of arrest until the child’s prosecution and eventual conviction and sentencing.”
Following on from UNICEF’s report, MCW collected 912 testimonies from Palestinian children detained by the Israeli military in the West Bank. Between 2013 and 2018, this evidence discloses that solitary confinement was used, on average, in 1.5% of cases involving children. However, since January 2019, this surged to 19.7%. As of January 2022, 20 children are currently held in solitary confinement, according to Defence for Children International Palestine (DCIP) .
The impact of solitary confinement on children
MCW’s report details the impact of solitary confinement on Palestinian children. The research details weight loss, self-harm, depression and ongoing psychological trauma. These findings on the serious adverse impacts of solitary confinement are aligned with findings made by two previous UN Special Rapporteurs on Torture, Professor Manfred Nowak and Professor Juan Mendez.
The effects of solitary confinement on a detainee were considered by Professor Manfred Nowak in a 2008 report to the UN General Assembly:
“The weight of accumulated evidence to date points to the serious and adverse health effects of the use of solitary confinement: from insomnia and confusion to hallucinations and mental illness. The key adverse factor of solitary confinement is that socially and psychologically meaningful contact is reduced to the absolute minimum, to a point that is insufficient for most detainees to remain mentally well-functioning. Moreover, the effects of solitary confinement on pre-trial detainees may be worse than for other detainees in isolation, given the perceived uncertainty of the length of detention and the potential for its use to extract information or confessions. Pre-trial detainees in solitary confinement have an increased rate of suicide and self-mutilation within the first two weeks of solitary confinement.”
Professor Nowak’s successor as UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Professor Juan Mendez, subsequently authored a report focused entirely on solitary confinement, submitted to the UN General Assembly in 2011, in which he found:
“Negative health effects can occur after only a few days in solitary confinement, and the health risks rise with each additional day spent in such conditions. Experts who have examined the impact of solitary confinement have found three common elements that are inherently present in solitary confinement: social isolation, minimal environmental stimulation and “minimal opportunity for social interaction”. Research further shows that solitary confinement appears to cause “psychotic disturbances,” a syndrome that has been described as “prison psychoses”. Symptoms can include anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, paranoia and psychosis and self-harm (see annex for a comprehensive list of symptoms). Some individuals experience discrete symptoms while others experience a “severe exacerbation of a previously existing mental condition or the appearance of a mental illness where none had been observed before”.“
In his 2011 report, former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, specifically addressed the impact of solitary confinement on children, and stated his clear view that “the imposition of solitary confinement, of any duration, on juveniles is cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and violates article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and article 16 of the Convention against Torture.” Expert international bodies and organisations, including the UN Committee against Torture, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, and UNICEF, have echoed the call for an absolute prohibition of solitary confinement of children.
It is patently clear that conditions of solitary confinement increase a child’s vulnerability and subsequent likelihood of making a forced false confession.
Military detention, with or without solitary confinement, can also severely disrupt a child’s education. Testimony collected by MCW suggests that both missing out on school while in prison, and the trauma of the prison experience, impact children’s ability to catch up on their education and pass exams once they are released.
Apparent purpose of holding children in solitary confinement
DCIP reports that the solitary confinement of Palestinian children within the Israeli military detention system takes place almost exclusively during pre-charge and pre-trial detention. Evidence collected by DCIP overwhelmingly indicates that it is practised solely to coerce a confession for a specific offence or to gather intelligence under interrogation.
As aforementioned, the imposition of solitary confinement of any duration against a child constitutes cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in violation of Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 16 of the Convention against Torture.
Additionally, Article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) provides that parties to the Convention “shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation.” As a party to the UNCRC and the occupying power, Israel has legal responsibilities under the UNCRC for the safety, welfare and human rights protection of children living in the occupied Palestinian territory.
Article 67 of the United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty, otherwise known as the Havana Rules (1990) / General Assembly 45/113, prohibits the use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary procedure against juveniles. The rules further provide that the juvenile justice system should “uphold the rights and safety and promote the physical and mental well-being of juveniles” and that “imprisonment should be used as a last resort”. As a resolution of the General Assembly, these rules are indicative of the minimum standards accepted by the UN for application within a juvenile justice context, consistent with basic human rights obligations.
Finally, but perhaps crucially, the cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of Palestinian children in Israel’s military detention system, could be subjected to criminal investigation by investigators and prosecutors at the International Criminal Court, within the context of its current investigation into the Situation in Palestine.
Israel’s military authorities increasing resort to the use of solitary confinement against Palestinian children is alarming. It indicates an overwhelming lack of care for children’s protection and well-being. It also demonstrates a clear disregard for the international rule of law.
With the international community seemingly unable to persuade Israel to end its maltreatment of Palestinian children under military detention, it is even more vital that investigators and prosecutors at the International Criminal Court carefully review the constantly accumulating large body of compelling evidence that led UNICEF to unequivocally conclude, back in 2013, that the ill-treatment of Palestinian children within Israel’s military detention system is: “widespread, systematic and institutionalised throughout the process”.
Phillipa Carson, Jack Palmer, Tareq Shrourou