Iceland is vastly overusing solitary confinement in pre-trial detention, violating the prohibition of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, with grave consequences for the accused and for their right to a fair trial, said Amnesty International in a report today. Amnesty International is calling on the government of Iceland, which currently chairs the Council of Europe, to undertake immediate and meaningful reforms.
In 2021 61% of remand detainees were placed in solitary confinement. In the previous ten years, ninety-nine individuals were subjected to ‘prolonged solitary confinement’ for longer than 15 days, violating the international prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (‘other ill-treatment’).
“Icelandic authorities have been aware of the harms that solitary confinement causes, and their overuse of it, for years. Yet still, every year on average over 80 people, including children and some people with intellectual disabilities, are locked in cells alone for over 22 hours per day. The authorities need to face facts. Iceland is violating the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment, during its chairmanship of the body responsible for preventing and eradicating torture in Europe. It urgently needs to make significant changes to prevent it,” said Simon Crowther, Legal Adviser at Amnesty International.
While the use of solitary confinement can be permissible under international law, it must be exceptional, for the minimum possible time, and be subjected to adequate safeguards to ensure its use is justified. None of this is the case in Iceland, where police requests for solitary confinement in pre-trial detention are accepted almost unquestioningly by judges.
The infamous case, of Guðmundur and Geirfinnur, in which two men disappeared several months apart in 1974, led to years of investigations and reviews, before six people confessed and were eventually convicted of their murder. All of those convicted had been held in pre-trial solitary confinement for prolonged periods and subjected to pressure and, in some cases, abusive treatment.
Five of the six were eventually acquitted in 2018. In 2022 the sixth person received an apology from the prime minister for the treatment she had endured.
The report suggests that although this egregious miscarriage of justice set in motion a shift away from excessively long periods of solitary confinement, not enough has changed and people are still being subjected to harm.
Holding a person in solitary confinement before trial can be considered a form of coercion. The main justification put forward by the authorities for the use of solitary confinement in Iceland is for the ‘protection of the investigation’ –which Amnesty International does not accept. One prosecutor told Amnesty International that solitary confinement was the only way to ensure that suspects did not have access to a phone. However, this is an unacceptable rationale and does not justify or explain its use in pre-trial detention. Other options, including separating detainees from certain individuals, and restricting phone use or barring specific numbers, are available.
Lawyers told Amnesty International that the harmful impact of solitary confinement on their clients was clear: “It is still obvious today that the police use isolation to put mental pressure on suspects and get the results they want.”
Children and people with disabilities
There are no safeguards to protect those who are at high risk of harm from being placed in solitary confinement. This includes those with physical or intellectual disabilities which could be exacerbated by being isolated. This will include some people with neurodiverse conditions. The police do not screen people for health conditions prior to requesting solitary confinement. The safeguards to protect children from being placed in solitary confinement are also woefully inadequate.
Judges overwhelmingly trust the police and approve requests to isolate suspects with little scrutiny. One judge told Amnesty International that serious decisions were taken “too lightly” with too much leeway given to the police.
“Through interviewing lawyers and detainees Amnesty International was able to document numerous instances in which solitary confident was used on individuals at high risk of harm, in violation of international human rights law and standards. One lawyer told Amnesty that his client was so distressed that he was ‘given drugs to relax him’.
One former detainee who was placed in solitary confinement told Amnesty “I have an obsessive-compulsive disorder and it’s very hard for me to be alone with my head … I do not think they [the mental health team] know I have it.”
Placing people with psychosocial disabilities, and children, in solitary confinement, is contrary to the international prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment. This must be halted immediately.
Risks of solitary confinement
The serious psychological and physiological effects of the use of solitary confinement have been well documented. It can induce insomnia, confusion, hallucinations and psychosis, as well as other health issues. Those can occur after only a few days, and pre-trial detainees have an increased rate of suicide and self-harm within the first two weeks of solitary confinement. Health risks rise with each additional day spent in such conditions.
In contravention of international standards, authorities in Iceland currently fail to collect data on the ethnicity of those held in solitary confinement. Amnesty International is concerned that it may be disproportionately applied to certain groups of people, including those belonging to minority ethnic groups or foreign nationals.
“Solitary confinement in Iceland is being abused on a massive scale, including children and individuals with disabilities. The Icelandic government needs to ensure a wholesale reform of the criminal code, and indeed the culture in the justice system, to end this abuse of people’s human rights. Alternatives already exist, and should be used,” said Simon Crowther.
No individual interviewees have been identified in the report nor the press release.