Last year, when California prisoners began refusing food in protest of the state’s solitary confinement practices, news organizations around the nation took notice. But the news struck a particular chord with journalist Shane Bauer, who, after being mistaken for an American spy, spent months in solitary confinement in an Iranian prison.
“It’s something that is impossible to describe,” he told a room of San Quentin journalists in January of the isolation. “It is hard to think. Time just kind of stays still.”
The California hunger strikes spurred Bauer to investigate California’s Security Housing Units, resulting in a harsh exposé on gang validation policies and SHU conditions woven into a personal account of the psychological turmoil of isolation. The article was published in Mother Jones magazine and won a John Jay College award for criminal justice reporting.
In 2009, the Iranian government arrested Bauer, Sarah Shourd, and Josh Fattal while the tourists were hiking on the desolate, mountainous countryside of the Iranian-Iraqi border.
The trio was accused of espionage and sent to the isolation unit in Tehran’s Evin Prison. Bauer and Fattal were kept in isolation for four months before sharing a cell for the next two years; Shourd was imprisoned in a separate woman’s facility for 13 months.
In Mother Jones, Bauer wrote of the effects of isolation after five weeks: “I fell to the ground utterly broken, sobbing and rocking to the beat of my heart; it was a patch of sunlight that brought me back.” Even the occasional rare breeze that wafted through that window or the sound of ravens off in the distance eased the anguish of isolation, he wrote.
“I needed human contact so badly that I woke every morning hoping to be interrogated,” he wrote. “I once yearned to be sat down in a padded, soundproof room, blindfolded, and questioned, just so I could talk to somebody.”
Bauer told the San Quentin Journalism Guild that he suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after his release.
“When I first got out, there was a big change. I had trouble making choices, which is an ongoing thing,” he said. “I used to have nightmares, and there are times when I don’t like to be in groups. However, at the same time, I don’t like to be alone.”
Bauer wrote that while he was locked up in Iran, he “saw men put in the hole for the company they kept, the books they read, the beliefs they held.” There was minimal open air, little yard access, difficulty communicating with prisoners in adjacent cells, limited books, a thin mattress, and limited, or no human contact.
“There was a window. Just having that light come in, seeing the light move across the cell, meant the world to me,” he said.
When he was given permission to visit the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison, he was shocked to find that the conditions were similar — but worse.
In a recent report, Amnesty International found that suspected gang members held in California’s SHU suffer from “cruel and inhuman, degrading treatment, in violation of international law.”
“[SHUs are] vivid examples of a criminal justice system at its most extreme,” said Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of Amnesty International USA. “Corrections officials defend their use of the special units, saying they are necessary to segregate some of the state’s most dangerous criminals – powerful gang members and violent inmates.”
Currently, inmates who prison officials allege present a risk to institutional security due to alleged gang affiliations serve an average of 6.8 years in the SHU, reports Amnesty International. Such prisoners spend a minimum of six years in the SHU if they are disciplinary free. In Iran, says Bauer, no one has served more than two years in solitary confinement.
Prolonged isolation is linked to higher suicide rates. Prisoners confined to SHUs comprise of about 2 percent of the state’s prison population, yet accounted for 47 percent of suicides from 2006 to 2010, Amnesty International reported.
At Pelican Bay, Bauer, like all journalists, was only permitted to enter the “debriefing pod”: the cells housing inmates who were providing prison officials with all the information they had regarding other prisoners the officials were interested in. Bauer said he felt short-changed; he wanted to interview an active gang member but was not granted the opportunity.
Prison officials now use the term “Security Threat Group” instead of prison gang, which broadens the category of potential prisoners put in isolation.
In October, California adopted a new strategy for managing STGs, which included new standards for validation. As of the beginning of January, 88 inmates had been reviewed under the new standards. Fifty-one were moved to the general population, and another 25 entered the state’s new “step down” program, which allows their return to the general population after a four-year process.
More than 3,000 men and women remain locked in the SHU indefinitely.
– Additional reporting by Salvador Solorio
Mother Jones Magazine has offered to send prisoners who request it a free copy of the magazine containing Shane Bauer’s story. Write to Mother Jones Magazine, Attn: Customer Service, 222 Sutter St., Ste. 600, San Francisco, Ca. 94108.