Arizona’s ‘inhumane’ isolation: Amnesty Report

The extreme isolation regime used in special prisons in the US state of Arizona is cruel and dehumanises inmates, according to Amnesty International, 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 2,900 prisoners are held in Arizona’s highest security maximum custody facilities, the majority in the SMUs at ASPC-Eyman. Most are confined alone in windowless cells for 22 to 24 hours a day in conditions of reduced sensory stimulation, with little access to natural light and no work, educational or rehabilitation programs. Prisoners exercise alone in small, enclosed yards and, apart from a minority who have a cell-mate, have no association with other prisoners. Many prisoners spend years in such conditions; some serve out their sentences in solitary confinement before being released directly into the community.”

Amongst Amnesty’s recommendations are that Arizona authorities should:

  • Reduce the number of prisoners in isolation under SMU or similar maximum custody conditions to ensure that only prisoners who are a serious and continuing threat are held in maximum custody isolation facilities.
  • Provide a route out of segregation through incentive or step-down programs so that prisoners are not held long-term or indefinitely in isolation.
  • Improve conditions for prisoners in SMU or other maximum custody facilities so that they are not confined in windowless cells or denied access to natural light; have more out of cell time and better exercise facilities with appropriate equipment.

Understandings of carceral space, which include these extreme conditions of incarceration, are important for carceral geography. Geographers have a critical constructionist notion of space, understanding that it is not passive, but is constantly being produced and remade within complex relations of culture, power and difference. Although spaces of supermax prisons await this kind of socio-spatial inquiry, in her 2005 paper, “Inclusive Exclusion: Citizenship and the American Prisoner and Prison,” Agnes Czajka considered the proliferation of prisons in the United States, particularly the increasing number of supermax security or “camp” prisons, as an example of “the normalization of a state of exception”, drawing on the work of Giorgio Agamben. In a very different penal context, Teresa Dirsuweit (1999) discussed the interrelationship of identity and space, mapping out the prison in terms of the physical spaces and the signification that these spaces hold for prisoners and prison authorities, and Anita Wilson’s work has produced rich ethnographic material on the personal transformation of prison spaces.

David Sibley and Bettina van Hoven argue in their 2008 paper for ‘a fuller exploration of the relationships between prison architecture, the space–time regime, and correctional officers, on one hand, and the worlds of inmates, on the other’.  They point out, though, that as Amnesty found in Arizona, prison authorities do not often facilitate this kind of research.

Perhaps the Amnesty report shows that understanding how prison works, and how institutional spaces are produced and experienced, is critical to tackling such ‘inhumane’ conditions.

Wilson A 2004 Four days and a breakfast: time, space and literacy/ies in the prison community in Leander K and Sheehy M eds Spatialising literacy research and practice Peter Lang, New York 67–90