Arizona’s prisons: maxed out on sensory deprivation

With the “war on terror” interrogation and detention regimes of the last ten years we’ve heard a lot about sensory deprivation/overload techniques: hooding, placing people in cells without light (or constant 24-hour light), or subjecting them to extremes of heat, cold or noise.

It’s difficult to imagine what this would actually feel like (always remembering, of course, that it’s being done to you by people who may wish you harm, who have pretty much total power over you and may also be preparing worse …). It sounds bad enough on paper but I think it would be totally terrifying in practice. So-called “stress and duress” techniques - as used by the USA in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo - have, in short, been a form of torture, one that works on the mind as much as the body.

Could there be a link, then, with what they do to thousands of prisoners in “Special Management Units” (SMUs) of maximum security prisons in US states like Arizona? You be the judge. Here’s a brief account of these places, based on a new Amnesty report

Most prisoners are confined in single cells for nearly 24 hours a day

Inmates are allowed out of their cells for no more than three times a week, for a maximum of two hours at a time, either to shower or to walk alone in a small, enclosed yard

The cells are designed to reduce visual and environmental stimulation, with no external windows (just narrow windows facing a blank wall), no direct access to sunlight and a minimum of fresh air

The cell doors are remotely controlled and guards wear heavy gloves when handling a prisoner, who will be a strip-searched and shackled with wrist and ankle restraints whenever they’re allowed - briefly - to leave their cells

Guards slide food into the cells through a slot in the thick steel cell doors

Any visits are strictly non-contact visits, with a screen separating the visitor and inmate

Medical and mental health staff visiting prisoners at the cell door reportedly wear face masks and protective vests (said to be a preventative measure to protect staff from the risk of inmates spitting through the perforated holes in the doors)

So, no communal gatherings of any kind, no conversations, no visual or auditory stimulation or distraction, no opportunity to even touch another human being. This regime of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation would, surely, be hard to withstand for even a few days or weeks. Imagine it lasting months, then year after year … Some prisoners held in isolation in Arizona are kept in this type of low-wattage captivity for several years at a stretch. Of the 110 women held in “maximum custody status” (in the Lumley Special Management Area of the Perryville prison in the city of Goodyear in Arizona), one has reportedly been in a similar lockdown unit for more than 15 years.

The bigger picture … in Arizona nearly 3,000 prisoners are held in such super-max conditions (around 7% of Arizona’s entire prison population of 40,000). It’s the highest proportion of any US state. Meanwhile, the USA itself is thought to hold more prisoners in solitary than any other country in the entire world. Unsurprisingly, prisoners are developing mental illnesses (which in some cases are going untreated, as there’s a chronic shortage of psychiatrists) and there are bacterial infections associated with unsanitary conditions (some units have been described as having walls smeared with food, urine and faeces).

Prisoners held in these dehumanising conditions are described by the prison authorities as posing a high security risk, some for disciplinary reasons within the institutions. But the state of Arizona seems to have gone completely overboard in its use of super maximum security. While various other US states have recently reduced or closed down their isolation units, Arizona, to its utmost discredit, appears to be maxing out on sensory deprivation.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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