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Julian Assange and the Inhumanity of the British State: ‘Unofficial’ Solitary Confinement as Torture

Up until this week, Assange has been held in solitary confinement in Belmarsh prison. Incredibly, it was the other prisoners along with Assange’s legal team, who have pressured the government officials to respect the law and allow Assange to be removed from solitary confinement, resulting in his transfer to a general wing. This piece looks at how Assange was unofficially segregated in the prison’s healthcare unit,  with no recourse to systems designed for prisoners in official solitary confinement regimes as applied under Prison Rule 45, leaving him out of reach of rules and law.

Nina Cross
21st Century Wire

The sustained violation of the human rights of Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, has been carried out in full view of the world throughout his arbitrary detention in HMP Belmarsh. Until now, condemnation of his treatment and pleas to end his suffering have been met with denial and silence by the British authorities. But the announcement this week that Assange has been moved out of Belmarsh healthcare unit where he has been detained in solitary confinement since May, is a sign that the campaign to stop his persecution is gaining traction. Also of significance is the involvement of his fellow inmates in helping to secure Assange’s release from solitary confinement, which suggests that within the walls of Belmarsh it is understood that the healthcare unit has been weaponized to arbitrarily isolate and punish a prisoner.

Moving Assange from solitary confinement shows a shift from official government position that solitary confinement ‘does not exist’

Until now the British authorities have not only denied that Assange has been detained in solitary confinement, but that solitary confinement is not practised in British prisons.

In an attempt to mitigate growing public outrage, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) has been sending out letters in response to the influx of complaints it has been receiving regarding the abuse of Assange.  In its response it refuses to address his case and produces a list of standards and laws written for the protection of prisoners as evidence he is in ‘safe hands.’  However, anyone who has followed the continued arbitrary detention of Assange in Belmarsh will know he has been placed effectively outside the reach of laws and standards; even access to his lawyers and legal documents, normally preserved by statutory prisoner rights – has been harshly restricted, all of which has had a crippling effect on preparation for his defence in a case of historical significance.

The HMPPS claim that “…prisoners are not detained in solitary confinement...”  could only be made after dismissing statements by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, that Assange has been held in solitary confinement, in violation of international law:

Blanket statements of how the UK cares for all prisoners could only be made by ignoring the decision by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, that Assange is being arbitrarily detained, in violation of international law. What’s more, the British state’s dismissing out of hand any accusations  of ‘solitary confinement’ as a falsehood or public misconception – must surely undermine the work of prison charities and scholarship in law and prison systems which exists to shed light on the consequences of solitary confinement including ill-health and suicide.

Hence, the HMPPS letter can be viewed as a public relations exercise designed to promote the image of good governance, a facade designed to mask the institution’s deployment of the very same strategy practised by the government when called upon to answer for its abuse of Assange: denial and silence.

Solitary Confinement: ‘Nothing to see here’

UN Rapporteur Nils Melzer has condemned the mistreatment of Assange, which he has measured against the UN’s definition of solitary confinement under the Standard Minimum Rules.

Until now, Assange has been locked in a cell alone for over 22 hours a day and deprived of association with other prisoners for several months.   This is in breach of both the European Prison Rules and the British government’s own prison inspectorate human rights standards, recognised as follows:

There is clear consensus in human rights standards that all prisoners, including those in segregation or cellular confinement, should have at least one hour of outside exercise in the open air every day (SMR 23.1; EPR 27; CPT 2nd General Report). This should be in addition to time spent in association with other prisoners (EPR 25.2, 27.7; CPT 2nd General Report)See also standards relating to solitary confinement (SMR 43.1, 44, 45). See also Expectation 10 and related human rights references.”

As can be seen, the inspectorate standards refer to the same laws identified by Melzer to condemn the mistreatment of Assange.  For anyone doubting whether a prison healthcare unit, or any other building associated with care, could hold people in solitary confinement, the prison charity Penal Reform makes this clear:

“… when a prisoner is confined to a cell for 22 hours or more, that constitutes solitary confinement, regardless of the reason for this confinement or its name.”

The prison ombudsman also confirms the fact that solitary confinement is not dependent on location:

“Segregated conditions are also sometimes applied outside of segregation units. Prisoners can be kept on the wing, but locked in their cells for the most of the day, and taken to shower and exercise separately from other prisoners on the wing.”  

Here the ombudsman is referring to official segregations, but this could just as easily be applied in describing Assange’s daily regime in Belmarsh over a period of several months, according to reports.

So what is the difference between official segregation where prisoners are detained in solitary confinement and the solitary confinement that until this week has been imposed upon Assange while in Belmarsh healthcare?

Official segregation is allowed under prison rule 45 (segregation units allowed under rule 46).  It states that the removal of a prisoner from association can be enforced:

“45.—(1) Where it appears desirable, for the maintenance of good order or discipline or in his own interests, that a prisoner should not associate with other prisoners, either generally or for particular purposes, the governor may arrange for the prisoner’s removal from association accordingly.

(2) A prisoner shall not be removed under this rule for a period of more than 3 days without the authority of a member of the board of visitors or of the Secretary of State. An authority given under this paragraph shall be for a period not exceeding one month, but may be renewed from month to month”

By being held in unofficial segregation, Assange has been excluded from ‘the rules’ and therefore may have been worse off than if he had been officially segregated:

“The regime for segregated prisoners (under Prison Rule 45 (YOI 49)) should be as full as possible and only those activities that involve associating with mainstream prisoners should be curtailed.” – SEG PSO

Here we find the legal framework designed to justify segregating individual prisoners.  It is also designed to make the authorities accountable.

Legal Defence: Access denied

In Assange’s case his movements have been so severely restricted that he has barely had access to his lawyers, leading them to declare that they are “on the brink of a judicial review“.

It was reported at Assange’s case hearing on 13th January 2020, that since 19th December 2019 he had had just 2 hours with his legal team to review case evidence.  Such extreme restrictions between client and legal representatives are severely hindering his defence preparation, despite the fact he is facing a 175 year prison sentence in a high security US federal prison if extradited.  It is important to contrast this with the way Belmarsh treated Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, founder of the English Defence League) last year while he was officially segregated inside Belmarsh, convicted of a civil offence.  In his case the governor was reported to have personally intervened to ensure he did not miss any social visits, as well as “unlimited phone calls between 9am and 11am each morning,” according to reports.

On the surface Belmarsh’s efforts to dot the I’s and cross the T’s for Robinson appears to have been a tactical approach to appease his supporters.  This is in stark contrast with Assange who, as an unconvicted prisoner, should have more statutory rights than Robinson had, but is effectively denied access to fair treatment and justice according to the state’s own regulatory guidelines.  Therefore, when the HMPPS tells us that certain prisoner rights  “…are not subject to change or limitation according to the profile or details of any individual prisoner’s case…”  – then we see that rights do not need to be changed or limited to disproportionately punish one individual: all that is needed is for them to be applied fairly. Unfortunately in the case of Julian Assange, they are not.

Health Implications

Solitary confinement may have also taken a toll on Assange’s overall health, including the potential for permanent damage.

What were the implications of solitary confinement on Assange’s health? Nils Melzer visited Assange in Belmarsh prison in May last year, along with 2 medical experts specialising in the examination of potential victims of torture.  They carried out extensive assessments and Melzer described Assange’s condition as showing:

“… all the symptoms that are typical for a person that has been exposed to prolonged psychological torture…the evidence was overwhelmingly clear that Julian Assange had been exposed to several forms of cruel and degrading treatment which accumulatively can only be described as psychological torture.”

This raises the question that given the extreme mental and emotional distress experienced by Assange, as diagnosed by 2 experienced medical specialists, under the auspices of the UN rapporteur, did Belmarsh show any consideration of Assange’s condition when it inflicted a regime of indefinite solitary confinement on him?  Do his prison records show the level of consideration of the effects of solitary confinement on his health in the way that records for segregated prisoners are supposed to show?

These are important questions, all of which have a direct bearing on whether Assange has been placed under a cruel and unusual regime by the state.

No recourse to law in unofficial segregation

The official segregation of a prisoner is subject to a range of procedures as set out by Prison service order 1700.  According to the rule books, had Assange been held in official segregation for seven months, he would have been the subject of regular board reviews, and regular visits from the Independent Monitoring Board and the governor.  In theory he would have been the focus of a multi-disciplinary review system assessing the effects of solitary confinement on his health.  But it would appear that until now, he has been placed behind a highly opaque and politically convenient bureaucratic veil – effectively left to rot unaccountably for months in solitary confinement by the prison authorities. In doing so, the British state has rendered him unable to defend himself in what is arguably the most important precedent case for freedom of the press in this young century.

Now, due to the support of other prisoners inside Belmarsh, and with Assange’s legal team and campaigners too, he has been moved to a wing where he can mix with other prisoners.  This is being hailed as a victory for Julian Assange and also for those in a place where, in view of the state’s treatment of Assange, unofficial segregation could conceivably be imposed upon anyone, anywhere and at any time.

It should not go unnoticed that the authorities have been held to account by a group of prisoners objecting to the mistreatment of an individual prisoner who happens to be recognised by the UN as being arbitrarily detained by the British government.  We should not under-estimate the significance of this group of prisoners as part of a wider campaign that is clearly gaining momentum, and which has made gains to bring about fairness for Assange despite the best efforts of the prison authorities and the courts to silence him.

Author Nina Cross is an independent writer and researcher, and contributor to 21WIRE. To see more of her work, visit  Nina’s archive.

READ MORE ASSANGE NEWS AT: 21st Century Wire Assange/Wikileaks Files




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