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USA: Arizona's prison isolation units are 'inhumane' - new report

*Reports of prison walls smeared with food, urine and faeces

*‘No prisoner should be deprived of basic amenities such as adequate exercise, access to natural light and fresh air and meaningful human interaction’ - Angela Wright

The extreme isolation regime used in special prisons in the US state of Arizona is cruel and dehumanises inmates, said Amnesty International today (3 April), as it released a new report accusing the state authorities of failing to care for the basic physical and mental health of these isolated prisoners.

The report, Cruel isolation: Amnesty International’s Concerns about Conditions in Arizona Maximum Security Prisons , describes how over 2,000 prisoners are confined for months or years in conditions of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation.
More than one in 20 of the total prison population in Arizona is held in isolation - a disproportionately high ratio in a country believed to house more prisoners in solitary than any other in the world. This includes over a dozen Children's rights (aged between 14 and 17) held in a special minors unit for Children's rights who have been tried and convicted as adults.

Most of Arizona’s isolation prisoners are held in the Special Management Units (SMUs) at the “Eyman” state prison complex in the town of Florence. SMU prisoners spend nearly 24 hours a day in sparsely furnished cells which are designed to reduce visual and environmental stimulation. The cells have no windows to the outside and no direct access to sunlight. SMU prisoners don’t have access to work, education or rehabilitation programmes. They are only allowed to leave their cells three times a week for up to two hours to shower and exercise alone in a small yard which rarely gets sunlight.

Cell doors in SMUs are remotely controlled and guards wear heavy gloves when handling prisoners, who are strip-searched and shackled with wrist and ankle restraints whenever they’re allowed to leave their cells. Visits with relatives or lawyers take place behind a screen which prevents all physical contact. In a letter sent to Amnesty, one prisoner held for years in Arizona’s isolation units has described conditions as unbearable - with food, urine and faeces stuck onto walls in units. Some prisoners reportedly suffer bacterial skin infections, bouts of food poisoning and blood infections as a result.

Amnesty has been told that most prisoners are kept in the same harsh conditions from day one until the day they are released from the isolation units.

Meanwhile, a number of US states have recently reduced or closed down their isolation units following court orders or to cut costs. In 2007 Mississippi tightened its criteria for assigning prisoners to its isolation unit and began phased group recreation and communal activities, allowing prisoners to eventually move into general population facilities. The unit was closed altogether in 2010, reportedly saving more than $5m. The authorities say the changes led to significant improvements in prisoner behaviour and a reduction in violence and the use of force.

Amnesty International USA researcher Angela Wright said:

“Solitary confinement in Arizona is inhumane.

“Everything from the cells to the lack of heath care and rehabilitation opportunities seems to be specifically designed to dehumanise prisoners.

“Isolation should only be used as a last resort and for short periods. It should never be imposed against Children's rights or prisoners with mental illnesses.

“We recognise that prisoners may sometimes need to be segregated for security or disciplinary reasons. However, no prisoner should be deprived of basic amenities such as adequate exercise, access to natural light and fresh air and meaningful human interaction.”  

Prisoners held in solitary in Arizona have been classified by the authorities as presenting the highest risk to the public and staff. However, not all prisoners appear to fit this criterion; some for example have reportedly been placed in isolation for repeated, minor infractions, often because they have mental health or behavioural problems - conditions that are themselves likely to deteriorate in these environments.

Health experts have also said that extreme isolation can cause serious psychological harm, including anxiety and depression, perceptual distortions and psychosis - even in those with no pre-existing illness. Meanwhile, studies and data from various sources reveal that suicides occur more frequently in isolation units than in the wider prison population. Between October 2005 and April 2011, at least 43 suicides took place in Arizona’s adult prisons; 22 of the 37 cases where Amnesty obtained information took place in isolation facilities.

One prisoner diagnosed with a serious mental illness spent two years in an SMU without once seeing a psychiatrist despite his repeated requests and referrals by staff.

Note to editors
Amnesty’s request to visit the SMU units at Eyman last year was denied and the state corrections department declined to meet the organisation’s delegates when they were in Arizona in July 2011. Amnesty’s concerns are based on a range of sources, including prisoners and prisoner advocates, present and former staff members, and Arizona Department of Corrections written policies and procedures.

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