Article from annual report 2019 – Special Report on Solitary Confinement in Norwegian Prisons

In June 2019, the Parliamentary Ombudsman submitted a Special Report to the Storting on Solitary Confinement and Lack of Human Contact in Norwegian Prisons. The report is based on findings from the National Preventive Mechanism’s (NPM) visits to 19 Norwegian prisons over the course of four years. The nature of these findings were so grave that we chose to compile them in a separate Special Report to the Storting – the most powerful instrument available to the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

(This article was published in the annual report for the  Parliamentary Ombudsman as National Preventive Mechanism 2019. The NPM´s 2019 annual report is available here )

Background for the Special Report

For several years, Norwegian authorities have been criticised internationally for their use of solitary confinement in prisons. As recently as in 2018, the UN Committee against Torture expressed great concern about the extent of prolonged solitary confinement, and that the conditions for use of solitary confinement were not sufficiently clear.

In the same year, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) visited Norway and recommended in its report that inmates held in solitary confinement in Norway should be offered structured activities and have meaningful human contact on a daily basis. The committee was particularly concerned about the solitary confinement of inmates with mental health problems.

During the period 2014–2018, the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) has carried out 20 visits to 19 high-security prisons. The overall findings paint a serious picture of the use of solitary confinement in Norwegian prisons.

The purpose of the report was to make the Storting aware of the risk of inhuman or degrading treatment represented by the use of solitary confinement in prisons.

Solitary confinement in Norwegian prisons– inadequate regulation and overview

The key element of solitary confinement is that the inmate is separated from other inmates, and that meaningful human contact is reduced to a minimum. Internationally, there are several different definitions of the term solitary confinement. All  these definitions are based on the premise that solitary confinement is a measure that is serious, intrusive and detrimental to health.

The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules) prohibits confinement for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact for more than 15 consecutive days. The Special Report to the Storting underlines that Norwegian legislation does not provide for such a limitation in time. In our neighbouring countries Denmark and Sweden, there are rules in place that specify that inmates must not be locked up for longer than 12 hours a day. In Norway, it is up to the individual prison sections to determine when inmates are let out of their cells in the morning and locked in the evening. In several prisons, we have observed that inmates placed in what is known as a communal section are, in reality, locked inside their cells for 22 hours a day or longer. The lack of clear statutory or regulatory requirements on how much time inmates should be entitled  to  spend  associating with other inmates, creates  ambiguity  and diminishes the authorities’ knowledge of the extent of solitary confinement in Norwegian prisons.

Extensive solitary confinement and restrictions on association with other inmates

In the report, the Parliamentary Ombudsman points out that there are major weaknesses in the authorities’ control of the use of solitary confinement in Norwegian prisons. Our collection and review of figures show that there is no reliable overview of the extent of solitary confinement in Norwegian prisons. This means that the responsible authorities lack necessary information to assess measures to reduce the use of solitary confinement and limit its harmful effects.

A minimum estimate based on the Correctional Service’s own figures show that one in four inmates in Norwegian prisons is locked in their own cell for 16 or more hours a day. The figure is higher during weekends. After the publication of the Special Report, the Directorate of Correctional Service has pointed out that the figures are, in all probability, even higher. This runs counter to the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture’s (CPT) recommendation that all inmates are entitled to at least eight hours of meaningful activity outside their cell every day.

One of the most disturbing findings from the NPM’s prison visits is that the most extensive use of solitary confinement is not due to the conduct of the inmate, but to financial or practical challenges within the prison organisation. At times, over half of all instances of solitary confinement in Norwegian prisons have been due to a lack of available activities, low staffing levels or a lack of common areas in the sections.

Some findings also indicate that the number of inmates who choose to be in solitary confinement is increasing. This type of solitary confinement usually happens because of a general sense of insecurity, mental health challenges or because the inmate is afraid of other inmates. The prison staff present play a crucial role in creating a sense of se- curity and identifying inmates who withdraw from the company of others and from daily activities.

Harmful effects of solitary confinement

The report presents a wealth of documentation available about the physical and mental health effects of solitary confinement. Contact with other people is one of the most fundamental human needs, and research confirms that a high proportion of those in solitary confinement experience some form of physical or mental health issue as a result of the solitary confinement.[1] The harmful effects of solitary confinement can be immediate, but the number of inmates who develop health problems and the severity of such problems increase with the length of confinement.

The most effective way of reducing the harmful effects of solitary confinement is to facilitate meaningful human contact. The most effective measure will always be to ensure that inmates have the opportunity to spend time with others for most of the day.

In cases where this is not feasible, it is imperative that the prison ensures that inmates have contact with people in other ways, such as contact with staff, external parties such as prison visitors, or other inmates when possible. During the NPM’s visits to prisons, inmates frequently tell us that prison officers rarely find the time to have long and meaningful conversations with them, and that the only contact they have with staff is in connection with daily tasks, such as handing out meals and medication. On the other hand, the prison officers often point out that they do not have time to focus on individual inmates in solitary confinement and that the staffing levels are too low. There is a lack of common guidelines and training on how to safeguard inmates to limit the detrimental effects of solitary confinement.

People who already have mental health issues or a mental disability are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of solitary confinement.

Inadequate follow-up from the health service

International standards state  that  medical personnel must visit inmates in  solitary confinement every day. There is no such minimum requirement in Norwegian legislation, and the Directorate of Health recommends that medical personnel visit inmates when medical reasons so indicate. This is not sufficient because it means inmates are dependent  on  the  assistance  of prison staff to get in touch with the health service.

We have found examples in several prisons where the health service was not contacted or notified, despite documentation showing that inmates had repeatedly requested the assistance of medical personnel. There are multiple cases where several days passed between visits from medical personnel, despite the inmate in question displaying major and obvious mental anguish or reported physical injuries.

The report also makes reference to an absence of statutes and central guidelines that ensure that medical personnel follow up inmates in solitary confinement in a responsible manner.

Our visits have also uncovered a clear lack of competence among medical personnel regarding the harmful effects of solitary confinement and a lack of adequate follow-up and measures to prevent such effects.

Solitary confinement in security cells

The report also focuses on  the  most  intrusive form of solitary confinement in Norwegian prisons: the use of security cells. During our visits, we have found that the physical conditions in security cells   in several prisons have been deplorable. With the exception of a mattress on the floor, security cells are completely bare. The size of several such cells was below the international minimum standard.[2] Food is slid onto the floor through a hatch, which,  in many instances, is situated near the squat toilet. There is little or no possibility of looking out of many of the security cells. Some cells are fully lit 24/7. This seriously undermines the inmate’s possibility of sleep and their notion of time. Such sensory deprivation attests to alarmingly low levels of knowledge about the risks of solitary confinement.

Our findings show that security cells are often used for people experiencing a personal crisis or severe mental crisis with a risk of suicide or self-harm. Many of the staff in a number of prisons have shown that they do not have the capacity to deal with people in crisis in any other way than using security cells. This is the opposite of what people in acute life crises need – namely to be in touch with empathetic people who listen. Findings have also shown that staff lack training and safe procedures for how to follow up inmates in security cells, both to prevent the detrimental effects of solitary confinement and to ensure that no inmates are placed there longer than the law allows for such an intrusive measure.

Follow-up and consideration of the Special Report

The Special Report on Solitary Confinement and Lack of Human Contact in Norwegian Prisons will be considered by the Storting during the spring of 2020. On 26 November 2019, the Parliamentary Ombudsman presented the findings and recommendations of the report to the Standing Committee on Justice as part of the preparations for the consideration in Parliament.

After the submission of the Special Report in June 2019, the Parliamentary Ombudsman has worked systematically to ensure that the report’s findings and recommendations are known and followed up by the responsible authorities. Meetings have been held with the heads of the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, the Ministry of Health and Care Services, the Directorate of Correctional Service and the Directorate of Health. Meetings have also been held with the Correctional Service trade unions, Wayback – Foundation for the Rehabilitation of Prisoners, the Organisation for Families and Friends of Prisoners, the Norwegian Medical Association and the Norwegian Nurses’ Association. The organisations that are members of our advisory committee are also kept up to date about the process. The report was also presented to a broader audience at a special event during Arendalsuka in August 2019, which was streamed on our website.

The Special Report to the Storting has been translated into English and shared with relevant international stakeholders.

10 recommendations from the Special Report to the Storting on Solitary Confinement and Lack of Human Contact in Norwegian Prisons

  1. Ensure reliable and publicly available data on the extent  of  solitary  confinement in Norwegian
  2. Establish a national standard to ensure that inmates have the possibility of associating with others for at least eight hours every day and are offered meaningful
  3. Amend the provisions of the Execution of Sentences Act to ensure that:
    •  solitary confinement is only used in exceptional cases and for as brief a period as possible;
    • follow-up off all inmates in solitary confinement in accordance with human rights standards;
    • solitary confinement for 22 hours or more a day is prohibited in situations mentioned in the Nelson Mandela Rules.
  4. Submit a proposal for a statutory or regulatory duty to prevent the use of solitary confinement in prisons.
  5. Strengthen the Correctional Service’s supervisory regime  by  defining  a  legal mandate that ensures systematic and regular supervision in accordance with international human rights.
  6. Ensure that common professional guidelines are drawn up to ensure satisfactory follow-up of inmates in solitary confinement.
  7. Prepare a plan for closing down or adapting all prison sections currently not adapted for association between inmates.
  8. Revise the national guidelines to health and care services for prison inmates, to ensure that the detrimental effects of isolation are identified and that inmates in solitary confinement receive follow-up.
  9. Establish by law that the health service is responsible for following up inmates in solitary confinement, so that inmates who are isolated or excluded from company are followed up by medical personnel on a daily basis.
  10. Ensure that the prison health services are provided with a stronger common professional platform, with particular focus on competence relating to inmates’ special health issues, solitary confinement and the detrimental effects of isolation.


[1] See, inter alia: Shalev, S. (2008). A Sourcebook on Solitary Confinement. London: Mannheim Centre for Criminology, London School of Economics.

Smith, P. S. (2006). The Effects of Solitary Confinement on Prison Inmates: A Brief History and Review of the Literature. Crime and Justice, 34, 476-487.

Howard, F. F. (2018). The effect of segregation. Prison Service Journal, 236, 4-11.

Smith, P. S. (2008). Solitary confinement. An introduction to the Istanbul Statement on the Use and Effects of Solitary Confinement. Torture Journal, 18, 56-62

[2] After its visit to Norway in 2018, the CPT stated that cells measuring less than six square metres must only be used for a few hours at a time.