On Monday, December 1, AFSC Arizona released Still Buried Alive: Arizona Prisoner Testimonies on Isolation in Maximum-Security (2014), a report on solitary confinement in the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) that catalogues the testimonies of prisoners who have first-hand experience with isolation. One of the more prevalent themes raised in those testimonies is the extreme dehumanization that takes place while being held in isolation. AFSC Graduate Student Intern, Alison Wood will occasionally be reporting on her work and experiences here in the AFSC Arizona office. Stay tuned for more of her thoughts in the coming months!
ADC communications representative, Doug Nick says that the “single-cell environment” is designed for prisoner safety. Perhaps Nick truly believes that turning people into animals (as so many prisoners repeatedly remarked) makes it safer for everyone. Or perhaps he just does not care that, as one prisoner wrote,
“Solitary confinement does not change us for the better. It makes us hate everyone and creates monsters within us.”
One of Tucson’s most well-known community events is the All Souls’ Procession. It’s a celebration of life and death, open to all members of the community. This year it was held on November 9 and a group of AFSC volunteers and interns participated in order to honor the prisoners who have died while incarcerated, especially in conditions of solitary confinement. During the Procession, I carried a sign that said, “Prisoners are People.” As both a graduate student in social work, and an AFSC intern, this is something I believe wholeheartedly. How can you say that human beings, no matter what they’ve done, aren’t people? Call them inmates, call them prisoners, heck, call them criminals. It doesn’t change the fact that, inside those cages, they are people.
To my shock and sadness, a few folks along the route of the procession seem to believe otherwise. I saw heads shaking in disgust and heard negative comments muttered or yelled. It didn’t bother me much for my own sake — I’m a tough (young) bird. But as I walked, my heart broke a little more for the people behind bars.
The respondents to AFSC’s solitary confinement survey point out the dehumanization themselves, writing about how they are treated like animals. One man said,
“SMU is nothing but a human dog kennel, the only difference is a animal can get adopted, we can’t … Some are just waiting to die, or to be put down like a dog…”
The comparison to dogs was frequent in the prisoner testimony AFSC received – many prisoners saying that they would never subject an animal to the treatment they live through:
“So I’ve spent at least 10 years in isolation cells, including Pinal County jail, this makes me feel like a caged up animal! I’ll never ever put my dog on a chain again.”
Another prisoner asks us to visit prisons where there are isolation cells, and just listen:
“You will hears dog barking where there’s no dogs, you will hear cat calls where there are no cats, you will hear monkeys, birds, chickens and roosters where there are no monkeys, birds, chickens or roosters. You will hear all these animals and think you’re at the zoo, but the reality will be that you are visiting ADC’s lockdown [units]. You will hear yelling and screaming, laughing and crying, and you will hear conversations that are polite and some that are foul. You will hear all this in ADC lockdown [units] especially in SMU I and Browning Units. And you will know that this is the mentality that becomes of a person who spends years in isolation.”
This human being, this person, points out that it is not just that prisoners in isolation live in dehumanizing conditions, they begin to buy in to that mindset. Treated like animals, prisoners begin to feel like animals. Instead of keeping prisoners safe or teaching them to be productive members of society when released, solitary confinement is teaching people that they are less than human.
This man finished by writing,
“Lastly I would say to the Arizona state Legislators, the Governor, and other policy makers regarding confinement: How about investing in rehabilitation instead of building another place that turns humans into animals?”
How about it, ADC? Are you running a zoo, or are you working for the correction and rehabilitation of people?
Read the full report here for more prisoner testimony on the conditions inside ADC isolation cells — and remember that there are real people held in the places described.