Shane Bauer: Out of Iran, investigating America's prison system

Categories: Q&A
Photo by James West, courtesy Shane Bauer.
Shane Bauer in Pelican Bay's SHU.
For two hellish years, the Iranian government held Shane Bauer prisoner on suspicion of being a spy. The worst part, he now says, was the four months he spent in a solitary cell. But since his release, Bauer has been surprised to discover even more troubling prison practices happening on American soil.

Guards arrested Bauer and two others -- including his now-wife, Sarah Shourd -- on July 31, 2009, while the group hiked through the mountains of Kurdistan on the Iranian border. With no evidence, Bauer, formerly of Onamia, was sentenced to eight years in prison, but was released in September 2011.

Shane Bauer, Minnesota journalist, sentenced to eight years in Iranian prison
Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, freed from Iran, call for release of all political prisoners

In the November-December issue of Mother Jones, Bauer investigates the solitary confinement practices in California's Pelican Bay, and his findings are disturbing. In California, inmates believed to be a threat are given indeterminate sentences in solitary, often with little evidence. In stark contrast to Minnesota, where the average time spent in solitary is 29 days, prisoners languish for an average of 7.5 years in Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit, or "SHU." One has been there 42 years. And unlike Bauer's cell in Iran, prisoners don't even have windows.

We caught up with Bauer to talk about his investigation, the effects of solitary, and what life has been like since his release.

City Pages: What are you doing now day to day?

Shane Bauer: I'm in Oakland, California, living with Sarah, my wife, and I'm writing a book, basically. I was previously kind of dividing my time between that [Mother Jones] story and the book, and now we're kind of in the home stretch of the book.

CP: And can you tell us at all about the book, or when we can expect it to be out?

SB: The release date isn't set for sure yet. It will be sometime between next fall and early 2014. It's being published by Houghton Mifflin, and, you know, it's a memoir of our time in Iran, and those two years, basically. So our time in prison, and then Sarah gets out, and she deals with her time while she's on the outside and we're still in. And we pretty much just recount what we went through, what we experienced.

CP: How did you get hooked up with Mother Jones?

SB: Before we were captured, Sarah and I were living in Damascus. And I had spent years in the Arab world before, and was freelancing. I had written a story for Mother Jones from Iraq, and it was actually published while I was in prison.

CP: It's been a little over a year now since you've been free again. Does any part of your life seem normal, like you never left? Or is everything very different now?

SB: It's kind of both. I have a pretty normal life, I guess. I have an apartment in Oakland. I work during the day in my home office, and you know, see friends in the evening and the weekends. So in that sense, it's normal. But I'm still very much tied in with my imprisonment. I spend every day writing about it. The person I live with and married went through that experience with me, so it's still very much part of our lives. I think that that's a slow process of getting out of, and moving on from. That process has definitely been underway this whole year. If I look back on the first few months after I got out, it's like night and day difference. But I would say, definitely, I still live it in my inner life.

CP: On that note, one thing that struck me in the piece is you describe visiting Pelican Bay as, "eerily like my dreams, where I am a prisoner in another man's cell." Do you still have those dreams?

SB: I haven't had those dreams for a while. I was at the time, and even more so before that. But it's been a while since I've had those back-to-prison dreams. They were pretty common for a while.

Watch video of Bauer in Pelican Bay, via Mother Jones:

CP: You talk about all the letters you get from prisoners. At one point, you write, "I become afraid of them and all the sorrow they contain." Regarding the letters, do you find yourself identifying with the prisoners, even though you were innocent, and most of these people who are writing these are presumably guilty?

SB: Yeah. I identify with their situation, I think, in many ways. I'm always very aware that I'm very different from them. They're guilty, presumably, for the crimes that put them in prison. But I relate to their situation of isolation. In a sense, I relate to just the feeling of not knowing when they're going to get out. For them, it's not when they're going to get out of prison like it was for me, but it's when they're going to get out of solitary, which is kind of this prison within a prison. With some of them that I write about in the article, part of me just relates to the feeling of arbitrariness to the situation that got them into the SHU.

CP: What was the most horrifying or troubling part of [the SHU] when you were doing the investigation for this story?

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