by David Berreby
Without a common language to speak, St. Augustine wrote, “a man would be more cheerful with his dog for company than with a foreigner.” For eight years, Sunnat, a sixteen-year-old Uzbek captured in Afghanistan in 2001, didn’t even have that: in 2002, he was transported to Guantánamo, where he did not know the linguae francae, English and Arabic. For all the talk he heard from his cellmates every day, he might as well have been in solitary confinement. Until his release, in 2010, he was, in the words of Peter Jan Honigsberg, a professor of law at the University of San Francisco, “alone in a sea of voices.” Every morning, Sunnat told Honigsberg, he awoke to a crushing sensation of loneliness. His only coping strategy: “I cried, and then I felt better.”
Sunnat was, in many ways, simply unlucky. He spoke a language that was rare at Guantánamo. The camp had only six Uzbek speakers; none were housed near him. He was held for eight years not because he was dangerous but because no country, not even his native Uzbekistan, would accept him as a Guantánamo deportee. (The military was required to hold him until a nation agreed to take him.) In fact, his innocence isolated him further: once he was no longer deemed a threat, he ceased meeting with an Uzbek interpreter and an interrogator. Then he was denied materials to learn English or Arabic, because the detention center has a policy against helping the presumed-dangerous detainees communicate with one another.
Depriving a prisoner of linguistic company can be a strategy: it can increase a prisoner’s dependence on an interrogator, making him more likely to talk, or it can prevent prisoners from organizing resistance. More typically, cases like Sunnat’s are unfortunate consequences of policy and circumstance. Whatever the cause, Honigsberg argues in his paper, “Alone in a Sea of Voices: Recognizing a New Form of Isolation by Language Barriers, or Linguistic Isolation,” the psychological effects of solitary confinement through linguistic isolation are largely the same as those via lock and key: impaired impulse control, an inability to concentrate or think clearly, confusion, obsessive behaviors, paranoia, and even a state resembling catatonia. A growing body of evidence suggests that a few weeks of solitary confinement for a prisoner amounts to torture. “Isolation by language barriers,” Honigsberg writes, “should be recognized as a distinct human rights abuse.”
Honigsberg is the founder and director of Witness to Guantánamo, an ongoing project to record and archive interviews with former detainees. He interviewed Sunnat (a pseudonym, to protect him from the stigma of having been held in the notorious camp) with an Uzbek interpreter, and was struck by Sunnat’s extreme loneliness. Afterward, Honigsberg told me, he asked for research on the issue of linguistic isolation in prisons, expecting a pile of material. After all, many nations have sizable minority populations that don’t speak their official languages; their prisons are likely to have inmates who confront communication barriers. In Russia, for instance, a Tajik inmate was required to speak to his visiting family in Russian, so the guards could understand what they were discussing. In practice, the effect was silence, since the prisoner’s family did not speak Russian. Deaf inmates often find themselves in a situation where no one else signs. And, of course, wealthy nations like the United States attract immigrants from all over the world, speaking all manner of languages. If these immigrants are detained, they, too, may find themselves without anyone who can speak to them.
Honigsberg was surprised to find little consideration of the issue of linguistic isolation in the legal literature, and there is no reliable data on the number of prisoners in the world who are linguistically in solitary confinement. Perhaps it should be expected, however. Actual solitary confinement is lightly regulated; in the U.S., for example, it carries the neutral-sounding label of “administrative segregation,” and is largely left to the discretion of the people who run prisons and jails.
Skeptics might say that prisoners can simply learn the language of their guards and fellow inmates. In fact, under the Crime Control Act of 1990, federal prisons are required to teach English to prisoners who don’t speak it. But in military jails, immigration detention centers, and many state facilities, materials for learning languages are unavailable. A few prisoners have overcome these obstacles; others, like Sunnat, could not. (Sunnat’s luck finally changed in July, 2010, when he was freed and sent to Latvia, where he gets by with a smattering of Russian. He has managed to join a mosque, find work, and get married.)
Honigsberg’s proposed remedies don’t sound unreasonably expensive or difficult to implement: prisoners should have the right be assessed with regards to language competency; to be housed, when practical, with fellow speakers of their language; and to be given the means to learn the dominant language of the prison. This hardly seems too much to ask, even for prisoners who, unlike Sunnat, are actually found guilty of a crime.
David Berreby is the author of “Us and Them: The Science of Identity.” Online, he writes the Mind Matters blog at bigthink.com. In print, his work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and many other publications. He lives in Brooklyn.