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

Shane Bauer in Pelican Bay's SHU.
Shane Bauer in Pelican Bay's SHU.
Photo by James West, courtesy Shane Bauer.

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?

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

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.

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

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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