Study finds thoughtful attitudes but austere conditions in solitary confinement units in Dutch prisons

A study commissioned by the Dutch Custodial Institutions Agency (DJI) and led by Dr Sharon Shalev of the Centre for Criminology, found that solitary confinement was used as short but sharp punishment. Whilst stays in solitary confinement, or ‘iso’ as it is colloquially known, were relatively short, material conditions were austere; daily regimes were poor; practices were sometimes outdated and unnecessarily punitive (for example, in some units, mattresses were removed from iso cells during the day), and those isolated could only exercise very little personal autonomy even with very basic things (such as not being able to flush their in-cell toilet).

The study found that most stays lasted a few days, and none exceeded the UN Nelson Mandela Rules' 15 days threshold.  Other positive findings included non-punitive staff attitudes and a wish to improve conditions and practices in solitary confinement units. It was also positive to note that units did not operate at full capacity: a spot survey of all isolation units in the Netherlands found that only 32.2% of all available isolation cells were occupied at the time. 

The report makes 46 recommendations, including on:  improving material conditions and daily activities; making a clearer distinction between isolation units as places of punishment and places of protection; Alternatives to isolation and further reductions in the length of stays; and improving isolated prisoners’ privacy and medical confidentiality.

The Dutch prison service welcomed the report, stating that: “[This is] a balanced report that states what is going well, but also what we can still improve. [..] A working group is now being set up to develop a vision for isolation placements. They will take the recommendations from the research and the input provided on the national day. The working group will also consider the implementation of this vision within the branches.”

Dr Shalev, the report’s author, said: “I applaud the Dutch Prison Service’s open and transparent engagement with this research, and welcome the setting up of a special working group to consider and implement the report’s findings and recommendations. I very much look forward to working with them to realise their vision.”

 You can read the full report on Dr Shalev's research website.