solitary II

Language in prison : Solitary linguistic confinement

” …But what about isolation by langauge? Few have acknowledged the effects of language barriers in prisons, which can cut off prisoners from meaningful human contact for long stretches. The closest America has come to addressing this issue is through its Crime Control Act of 1990, which requires that inmates in federal prisons take English language classes until they reach the proficiency of an eighth grader. But this does not apply to individual states, nor to irregular prisons like the one at Guantánamo Bay, where a prisoner may not be considered “isolated” if others are physically present. Anyone who has gone even a day without speaking to another person, though, knows that this is real solitude, even when others are around. How exactly does linguistic isolation affect the psyche?…

In “Alone in a Sea of Voices: Recognizing a New Form of Isolation by Language Barriers”, Mr Honigsberg compares physical and linguistic isolation, and found the similarities uncanny. In the most notable example, Honigsberg described a 16-year-old boy who spent eight years at Guantánamo after 9/11 because no country would have him, despite his quickly-discovered innocence. During those years, he was surrounded by prisoners who only spoke English or Arabic, while he knew only Uzbek. He was given no materials to help him learn English or Arabic, and no translator after his initial imprisonment. This resulted in a loneliness so acute that he cried every time he woke up. Mr Honigsberg wrote that this situation is akin to the anguish experienced by a stroke victim who is surrounded by conversations, but cannot participate. In immigration facilities, the same problems pertain, but are less severe, as prisoners spend less time there. Nonetheless, those suffering from language isolation experience disorientation and a decline in their decision-making ability…

This has not gone completely unnoticed. The European Council’s European Committee in Crime Problems, for example, has said that the “inability to communicate in the language most commonly spoken in a prison is a severe barrier to foreign prisoners’ ability to participate in prison life. It is the root cause of many problems such as isolation.” But the council can only recommend, not require, its member states to take action…”






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Prison activist and editor. Luk Vervaet is the author of « Le making-of d'Anders B. Breivik » (Egalité=Editions, 2012), « Nizar Trabelsi : Guantanamo chez nous ? (Editions Antidote, 2014), " De grote stap achterwaarts, teksten over straf en gevangenis" (Antidote & PTTL, 2016). He is co-author of « Kim et Ken, mes enfants disparus » (Editions Luc Pire, 2006), « Condamnés à la prison? Ecrits sur un monde caché » (Revue Contradictions, 2008) et « L'affaire Luk Vervaet : écrits sur un interdit professionnel » (Revue Contradictions, 2011).

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