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UK Supreme Court Rules Against Unlawful Use of Solitary Confinement

On July 29, 2015, the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled against prison officials in an action brought by prisoners Kamal Bourgass and Tanvir Hussain concerning their prolonged solitary confinement. According to British laws related to solitary, continued confinement after 72 hours must be authorized by the Secretary of State for Justice, not by prison staff. The rationale is that prison officials reviewing other prison officials’ actions does not constitute a meaningful review – though that is the standard practice in the U.S.

Bourgass, incarcerated at the high-security HM Prison Whitemoor, was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a police officer, attempted murder of two other officers and the wounding of a third, plus an additional 17-year sentence for being part of a terrorist conspiracy. Hussain, incarcerated at HM Prison Frankland, was also serving a life sentence for his role in a 2006 terrorist airline bomb plot. Both were held in solitary confinement, in violation of the 72-hour external review rule, for more than six months due to allegedly being involved in assaults and bullying other prisoners. Most of those allegations had since been disproved, or formal charges filed by prison and law enforcement officials were dismissed.

Solitary confinement reviews are taken much more seriously in the UK than in the United States; regardless, 28 UK prisoners have committed suicide in solitary between January 2007 and March 2014. According to a Prison Service Order issued by the Secretary of State in 2013, “for most prisoners there is a negative effect on their mental wellbeing and that in some cases the effects can be serious.” The negative consequences of solitary confinement are well documented, including the effects on prisoners’ mental health. [See: PLN, Oct. 2012, p.1].

“All prisoners who are segregated are already subject to a careful assessment so their physical and mental wellbeing is safeguarded,” UK prison officials stated. Long-term segregation is rarely used in the United Kingdom, and some prisoners held in segregation can receive no-contact visits and make phone calls once every three days.

The UK Supreme Court found that while Bourgass and Hussain’s human rights had not been violated, their “segregation beyond the initial period of 72 hours was not authorized by the Secretary of State and was accordingly unlawful.” In spite of that finding, apparently no prison employees were disciplined for failing to follow the applicable laws. See: R v. Secretary of State for Justice, [2015] UKSC 54, [2012] EWCA Civ 376.

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Related legal case

R v. Secretary of State for Justice