Skip to content Skip to navigation

Torture and "Still Buried Alive"

light coming into prison cell through window
Photo: Photo: Flickr user jmiller291

By Matthew Lowen and Lia Lindsey

For years, we’ve wondered how human rights abuses are rationalized despite the perpetrators knowing that they’re subjecting someone to immense suffering. While reviewing prisoner testimonies in "Still Buried Alive" (2014), a report detailing abuse in Arizona’s maximum-security facilities, the question occurred to us once again. In the face of undeniable evidence of solitary confinement’s devastating consequences, how do those responsible try to justify its use?

After examining the rhetoric of Arizona officials alongside the UN Committee Against Torture’s review of the United States last month, the mystery is at least partially solved: semantics.

Linguistic gymnastics is a skill well-honed by many government representatives. It’s a convenient way to manipulate words and their interpretation to convince others of an illogical perspective. Take for example Charles Ryan, Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections. He’d like the public to believe his claims that although supermax prisoners spend the vast majority of their incarceration alone in cells and have minimal contact with humans other than guards, the fact that they have access to reading materials, television (only if you can afford to buy one), and the ability to yell from their isolation cell so others hear them doesn’t classify as solitary confinement housing because the prisoners are not separated from others. When men, women, and even some youth are locked up alone for as many as 23 hours a day, common sense tells us they are in solitary and at risk for daunting negative psychological effects. No semantic game playing can disguise that.

Consider the stories prisoners living this reality have shared with the Arizona program of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). As one prisoner stated, “If a man is locked in an airtight naked cage alone for 23 hours each day, every day, and they only take him out for a shower 3 times a week in a [sic] airtight cell or one hour recreation alone in an empty pen. It is solitary no matter their double speak.”

Others describe being allowed out of their cells no more than three times per week for recreation time in a concrete box by themselves and to bathe. And sometimes they don’t even get these momentary freedoms from their isolation box when facilities are under-staffed.

Prisoners also report “no human contact,” and “alienated conditions.” One stated that “You see no one, there is no one to converse with,” and another that, “I haven’t had contact with another person in almost 11 years.” If this isn’t solitary confinement, we don’t know what is.

United States federal officials also display stunning talents of linguistic jujitsu, most recently when responding to the UN Committee against Torture about U.S. use of solitary confinement. Instead of addressing concerns about the “total insanity” caused by solitary confinement in supermax facilities, as one Committee member noted, government officials rebranded this practice as “restrictive housing” and stated that it isn’t intended to generate mental suffering but to keep prisoners safe. Conditions widely believed to cause suicidal thoughts, mental illness, increased agitation and hallucinations don’t promote prisoner well-being.  

The Committee apparently wasn’t sold on these semantics either, because in its concluding observations the Committee recommended the U.S. “ban prison regimes of solitary confinement such as those used in supermax detention facilities.” 

Still Buried Alive (2014) cites supermax prisoners in Arizona describing this suffering first hand, resulting from denials of human contact: “Mentally, I’m breaking down each passing day! I have to put up four walls around me, to protect myself from all the screaming and crying—that you hear in here… I’m mentally unstable, insecure and I am anti-social. I never was like this before.”

When human rights abuses are this grave, linguistic sleight of hand not only intentionally distracts from the ongoing cruel acts, but is an active attempt to dodge responsibility for these rights violations. It’s time that Charles Ryan and other government officials recognize solitary confinement for what it is—a cruel and inhumane form of punishment that needs to end.  Semantic manipulations won’t deter AFSC and other prisoners’ rights advocates from advocating for human rights.

The U.S. should adopt the Committee against Torture’s suggestion to end this form of torture in supermax, which would give needed relief to prisoners isolated in Arizona’s maximum-security facilities and others similarly situated across the country. It’s time to end the wordplay that covers a brutal, ineffective punishment.

Matthew Lowen is associate program director of AFSC's Arizona office. Lia Lindsey is policy impact coordinator for AFSC’s Washington, D.C. Office of Public Policy and Advocacy.