From Man to Beast: Imprisonment and Social Death

13 Pages Posted: 31 Jan 2013

See all articles by Alexa Koenig

Alexa Koenig

University of California, Berkeley - Human Rights Program; University of California, Berkeley - School of Law

Date Written: August 20, 2011


This essay draws on 78 interviews with men who were formerly detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to demonstrate that for many former detainees, the treatment they found particularly difficult to endure was that which threatened their self- and social-identities. Three forms of treatment particularly facilitated this threat. The first was treating detainees as something other than human, for example as an object or number. The second was isolating detainees from other humans, whether physically or through the creation of what I refer to as 'social islands.' Social islands seem to have emerged when detainees were kept apart from others who understand their culture and / or spoke their language, a practice that seems to have been as difficult for many men to endure as physical isolation. The third mechanism was sensory deprivation. The identity endangerment that resulted from these practices frequently contributed to an experience of social death. It was this experience of social death, both in Guantanamo and especially post-release, that many labeled the worst aspect of their imprisonment.

Keywords: Guantanamo, detention, social death, torture, prison, isolation, identity

JEL Classification: K39, K19

Suggested Citation

Koenig, Alexa, From Man to Beast: Imprisonment and Social Death (August 20, 2011). Available at SSRN: or

Alexa Koenig (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley - Human Rights Program

Berkeley, CA 94720-5800
United States

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law ( email )

215 Boalt Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720-7200
United States

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