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

Categories: Q&A

Photo courtesy Shane Bauer.
Bauer spent four months in solitary while held prisoner in Iran.

SB: I expected the isolation. That's definitely the most horrifying part, is just the fact of being separated from people. But the thing that I was kind of surprised by was how small the cells were and the fact that they didn't have windows. That's what immediately stuck out to me.

CP: There's a part of the story where a prisoner tells you, in regard to solitary, "It's meant to break a person." In your time in solitary, did you ever feel like you could be broken?

SB: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I think, when I was in solitary, I felt as that prisoner did that that was the purpose of it. There were times that I mention in the article that I broke down. I wouldn't have lasted indefinitely in that situation. I don't know how long I would have lasted until I was permanently broken, but I think that it's probably inevitable that I would have been at some point.

CP: Do you believe that extended periods of time in solitary is torture?

SB: I guess I would defer to the authorities on this. Probably the highest is the UN, which says 15 days or more in solitary -- which they define as 22 hours a day or more -- is torture or cruel, inhumane, degrading treatment. And the difference between those two things is really kind of a fine point. It's all based around intention, but the difference has nothing to do with the actual impact on the person that's undergoing it.

CP: You talk a little bit about the importance of meditation, and make a reference to having a cell big enough to pace in. What are the keys to remaining sane in this kind of situation?

SB: I don't know how to put it other than being vigilant about your sanity. You have to strive to keep it together. You have to have a regimen. The people I know that have been in the SHU for years that are still very articulate and have it together basically have regimens that they have every day. And I had to do the same thing. You know, meditation, exercising, reading if you can -- although for some people that's difficult to do. When you're in isolation, it's hard to focus.

CP: Let's talk about the protocol for being sent to solitary. In the story, you cite things like newspaper articles being used as evidence [that an inmate is involved with a prison gang]. And, basically, one guy in the system that you're writing about here serves, as you put it, as the prosecutor, judge, and jury. Is this standard for a lot of prison systems that have these SHUs?

SB: I don't know the details in other states nearly as well as I do California. We surveyed other states, and there's kind of basic information you can find on the website about it. But all of that is basically just what their [public information officer] said, so I didn't really dig into any of them. But I know that Texas and Arizona have systems that are quite similar to California's. Throughout California, it's definitely standard.

CP: You also interviewed Daniel Vasquez [who operated the SHU at San Quentin Prison] for the piece, who says prisons target black people that seem to have leadership qualities and black Muslims. Can we say this is anything but institutional racism?

SB: When I started digging into this story, this was kind of one of the first things that really started raising questions for me. Because I started seeing a lot of people with the evidence listed for the gang validation, a lot of people had Black Panther books. Anybody who has anything about George Jackson is the absolute worst. He was a former Black Panther that was killed in prison in the 70s.

If you talk to prisoner rights attorneys, or prisoner rights activists, this is the kind of thing that people say all the time. You know, there's so much racism within the prison system. But to actually see this documented, used as a means to kind of justify putting someone in solitary confinement, was extremely shocking to me.

CP: And in terms of getting out of solitary, prisoners have this option to "debrief." And you point out that there's sort of a catch-22 there. If they aren't actually gang members, they obviously don't have information to give. Is there ever an element of prisoners incriminating each other with false information just so they can get out?

SB: That's what prisoners kind of regularly claim. That issue is hard to really get evidence on because all those informants are confidential, so even an inmate's lawyer can't know what this person even said, or who they are.

CP: There's certainly at least an incentive.

SB: Yeah, for sure. I mean, anybody in solitary is desperate. People get to a point in that desperation when they're alone. They might last for six months, a year, a few years. And at some point, some people just can't do it anymore. And that way is a guaranteed out for anybody. Anybody who approaches prison staff and says that they want to debrief will get out. So there's a very strong incentive to make things up. And in a situation like that, there just aren't the controls necessary I think to regulate that.

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