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

Categories: Q&A

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Photo by James West, courtesy Shane Bauer.
Since his return, Bauer receives letters from prisoners from all over the country 

CP: You make brief mention of someone being in the SHU for 42 years. Do we know anything about this person?

SB: Yeah, his name is Hugo Pinell. Also known as Yogi Pinell. He was involved in an attempted prison break with George Jackson in I believe 1971. He was one of what were called the San Quentin Six. I don't know all the details, but I think the rest were later released from prison. But Hugo Pinell has been kept in. So he's now I think considered a leader of the gang.

CP: He's still considered a leader even though he's been in solitary for 42 years?

SB: Yeah, and I've seen cases where people have a picture of him, and that picture is used in evidence.

CP: You cite the average stay for a Minnesota inmate in solitary as 29 days. Do you have any sense of why, in a state like Minnesota, there's such a different attitude toward the practice of solitary than places like Texas or California?

SB: I don't really know why Minnesota is different. As far as California, I think there's a very big culture in the correctional department around fear of gangs. And there are a lot of gangs in California. California is such a huge prison system, you know, it's the largest in the country. That may play into it. It's also very overcrowded, which it's becoming less overcrowded now. They're going through a realignment. People are being taken out of a lot of the large prisons and put into county jails and stuff like that. And when you have people so packed together, it leads to violence and issues within the prison for sure.

CP: In Pelican Bay, you say it costs $12,000 and some change more a year to house an inmate in solitary. Given all the criticisms about solitary confinement, plus the fact that, as you point out, it's not that effective in driving down prison violence, and then factoring in the added expense, did you get any sense throughout your reporting here as to why this is used in the way that it is?

SB: That was a really hard thing to get at, and I don't think I ever came up with a satisfactory answer for that. You know, the department of corrections will keep saying it's necessary for prison safety. And that's kind of at this point flying in the face of evidence to the contrary from other states. And beyond that, if there's anything more than this kind of belief that that's the way it is, I'm not sure what the reason is.

CP: At the end of the piece, you quote a journal entry you wrote in prison: "solitary confinement is living death." What do you mean by this?

SB: I think when I was in solitary confinement, I felt blank. You don't feel alive. You're kind of just this body in four cement walls. And when you're removed from other people, everything significant is gone. Our whole livelihoods are based on other people.

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moser3
moser3

Like Shane Bauer, I was imprisoned in Iran as a foreigner accused of espionage - http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2009/07/30/reports-about-my-trip-to-iran-in-junejuly-2009/ - and I have been to prisons in the US when working there as a lawyer. NO, the (prison) systems in both countries are not the same. Just ask yourself if an article like this could appear in Iran. The American penal system is rotten in many places, but comparing it to a system that tortures and kills political opponents in its prisons is not helpful for the required debate.

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