Social wellbeing experts are calling on the authorities to abolish solitary confinement which, according to research, increases the likelihood of a prisoner committing even more violent crimes.

The warning was sounded in a report by the dean of the Faculty for Social Wellbeing, Andrew Azzopardi, the senior lecturer at the Faculty of Laws, Ruth Farrugia and Research Support Officer Jamie Bonnici.

The report (see PDF below) will be presented to parliament calling for the abolition of solitary confinement from both criminal law and prison regulations.

The document has been reviewed by a criminologist, a forensic psychologist, a social psychologist, a psychiatrist and a social policy expert.

The Faculty for Social Wellbeing hopes to kick off a debate and serve to push for legislative changes that would preclude the state from using solitary confinement as punishment.

“Our criminal justice system needs to invest in rehabilitative structures and social care services to ensure that we have inmates who go through the system and are better positioned to behave as active and responsible citizens instead of the other way around,” Azzopardi said.

“Methods based on fear and distress do nothing to contribute to that.”

The document bases its recommendations on a review of the practice in Malta, European and international standards as well as interviews with professionals involved in the fields of psychology, mental health, rehabilitation services and law.

The prevailing opinion expressed by all interviewees was that solitary confinement is an inherently negative practice that does not result in any beneficial outcome for the individual involved.

The interviewees argued that the sole exception should be in cases where it is utilised as a safeguard for the prisoner’s own mental health, a position that the authors of the document are not so convinced about.

In fact, in their recommendations they note that, in cases where a prisoner suffers from mental health issues and is deemed to require solitary confinement as s/he poses a threat to his/her own safety or that of others, psychological professionals should step in to monitor the person and ensure his/her safety.

What is solitary confinement?

Within the prison setting, solitary confinement is typically used as a sanction in response to some form of disciplinary infraction.

The practice is also resorted to when it is deemed necessary for the safety of the prisoner or other prisoners and staff.

Malta's Criminal Code defines it as “keeping the person sentenced to imprisonment, during one or more terms in the course of any such punishment, continuously shut up in the appointed place within the prison, without permitting any other person, not employed on duty nor specially authorised by the minister responsible for the prisons, to have access to him.”

Research quoted by the report shows that people subjected to solitary confinement experience significant detrimental effects to their physiological and psychological well-being.

It could result in increased anxiety and depression, ‘sociophobia’ (when a person loses the ability to interact with other people), hallucinations, panic attacks, memory loss and paranoia.

Among others, a few years ago, Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in a 2011 bomb-and-shooting rampage, told a court that his isolation in prison had caused him to become even more radicalised.

Another concerning issue for the authors is the use, by judges, of solitary confinement as part of a court sentence.

A few years ago, Libyan Nizar El Gadi was sentenced to life in prison after jurors found him guilty of murdering his former wife, Margaret Mifsud.

El Gadi was also sentenced to being locked up in solitary confinement for 10 days five times a year.

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