Solitary Confinement

Updated: May 20, 2020

There is always a punishment for the offence committed by the person. But the punishment is always in correspondence to the offence and according to the law and it should be always according to law not a violation of the law.


Solitary confinement is a punishment given to the prisoner in which he is confined which secludes him from the sight of and communication with other prisoners. It is a form of punishment in which the prisoner or an inmate is quarantined from any type of human contact. Solitary confinement is a direct torture to prisoners physically, mentally and emotionally also and it is considered as the most difficult punishment.


When imprisonment is given to a prisoner than any portion of that imprisonment is be a solitary confinement, there is no law which provides a full part of solitary confinement as a punishment.


Late Prime Minister Mr Jawahar Lal Nehru in his autobiography, has also given some view on solitary confinement. He says that “Solitary Confinement even for a short period is a most painful affair, for it to be prolonged for years is a terrible thing. It means slow and continuous deterioration of the mind until it begins to border on insanity and appearance of a look of vacancy or a frightened animal type of expression. It is killing of spirit by degrees, the slow vivisection of soul. Even a man survives it, he becomes abnormal and absolute misfit in the world”.


Law on solitary confinement


In India solitary confinement is defined in Indian Penal Code in Section-73 and 74.


Section-73 talks about the definition of solitary confinement which says that-


“Whenever any person is convicted of an offence for which under this Code the Court has power to sentence him to rigorous imprisonment, the Court may, by its sentence, order that the offender shall be kept in solitary confinement for any portion or portions of the imprisonment to which he is sentenced, not exceeding three months in the whole, according to the following scale, that is to say—


1. a time not exceeding one month if the term of imprisonment shall not exceed six months

2. a time not exceeding two months if the term of imprisonment shall exceed six months and shall not exceed one year

3. a time not exceeding three months if the term of imprisonment shall exceed one year”.

The simple determination of the term of solitary confinement in accordance with the duration of imprisonment can be understood as following:-


Term of Imprisonment

Less than 6 months

More than 6 months and less than 1 year

More than 1 year

Term of Solitary Confinement

1 month

2 months

3 months


In India, the law provides powers to both judiciary and executive to keep the prisoner in solitary confinement but in both cases, solitary confinement cannot exceed more than 3 months.


Section-74 talks about the limit of the solitary confinement and it follows as-


In executing a sentence of solitary confinement, such confinement shall in no case exceed fourteen days at a time, with intervals between the periods of solitary confinement of not less duration than such periods; and when the imprisonment awarded shall exceed three months, the solitary confinement shall not exceed seven days in any one month of the whole imprisonment awarded, with intervals between the periods of solitary confinement of not less duration than such periods.


Prisoner act,1894


Section-29 of the prisoners act deals with solitary confinement and says that-


“No cell shall be used for solitary confinement unless it is furnished with the means of enabling the prisoner to communicate at any time with an officer of the prison, and every prisoner so confined in a cell for more than twenty-four hours, whether as a punishment or otherwise, shall be visited at least once a day by the Medical Officer or Medical Subordinate”.

In the case of Charles Sobhraj Superintended, Central Jail

In this case, Supreme Court has held that any harsh isolation of a prisoner from the society of fellow prisoner by cellular detention under the prisoners act, 1894 section-29 and 30 is penal and it must be inflicted only in accordance with the fair producer and in the absence of which the confinement would be a violation of Article-21 of the Indian Constitution.


In Landmark case of State of Uttarakhand versus Mehtab, Sushil and Bhura

The Bench observed that keeping a convict in an isolated cell has a psychiatric impact on him and could affect his health. The court while citing studies also pointed out that, “It causes him heart palpitations (awareness of strong and/or rapid heartbeat while at rest), diaphoresis (sudden excessive sweating), weight loss and sometimes diarrhea, lethargy, weakness, tremulousness (shaking), feeling cold, aggravation of pre-existing medical problems, anxiety, ranging from feelings of tension to full blown panic attacks, persistent low level of stress, irritability or anxiousness, fear of impending 96 death, panic attacks, depression, varying from low mood to clinical depression, emotional flatness/blunting – loss of ability to have any ‘feelings’, emotional ability (mood swings), hopelessness, social withdrawal; loss of initiation of activity or ideas; apathy; lethargy, major depression, anger, ranging from irritability to full blown rage, irritability and hostility, poor impulse control, outbursts of physical and verbal violence against others, self and objects, unprovoked anger sometimes manifesting as rage, cognitive disturbances, ranging from lack of concentration to confusional states, short attention span, poor concentration, poor memory, confused thought processes; disorientation, perceptual distortions, ranging from hypersensitivity to hallucinations, hypersensitivity to noises and smells, distortions of sensation (e.g. walls closing in), disorientation in time and space, depersonalization/derealisation, hallucinations affecting all five senses, visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory and gustatory (e.g. hallucinations of objects or people appearing in the cell or hearing voices when no one is actually speaking), paranoia and psychosis, ranging from obsessional thoughts to full blown psychosis, recurrent and persistent thoughts (ruminations) often of a violent and vengeful character (e.g. directed against prison staff), paranoid ideas – often persecutory, psychotic episodes or states: psychotic depression, schizophrenia, self-harm and suicide etc.”

All said and done, this landmark judgment is a real eye-opener! At the risk of repetition, it must be said again that this landmark judgment by Uttarakhand High Court really not just deserves unlimited appreciation but also deserves to be emulated not just by lower courts but also by All High Courts and Supreme Court also. I am sure that this landmark judgment will certainly always get the respect that it deserves and will be emulated by all courts from now onwards!

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