The Silent Mistreatment

David Berreby chronicles the plight of Sunnat, an Uzbek captured in Afghanistan at age 16 who was taken to Guantanamo Bay in 2002 – a situation made especially harrowing by his near total linguistic isolation:

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.”