Shane Bauer spent 26 months in Iran's Evin Prison, four of them in solitary, after he and two fellow hikers were apprehended on the Iraqi border in 2009. Seven months after his release, he visited the segregated housing unit (SHU) at the infamous Pelican Bay Prison in his home state of California.
In Iran, his cell was twice as big as those at Pelican Bay. He slept on a mattress, rather than a thin piece of foam. And he wasn’t required to defecate at the front of his cell, in full view of guards. But, most of all, the investigative journalist noticed the lack of windows in the SHU cells:
"Without [the] windows, I wouldn't have had the sound of ravens, the rare breezes, or the drops of rain that I let wash over my face some nights. My world would have been utterly restricted to my concrete box, to watching the miniature ocean waves I made by sloshing water back and forth in a bottle; to marveling at ants; to calculating the mean, median, and mode of the tick marks on the wall; to talking to myself without realizing it. For hours, days, I fixated on the patch of sunlight cast against my wall through those barred and grated windows. When, after five weeks, my knees buckled and I fell to the ground utterly broken, sobbing and rocking to the beat of my heart, it was the patch of sunlight that brought me back. Its slow creeping against the wall reminded me that the world did in fact turn and that time was something other than the stagnant pool my life was draining into."
Bauer's investigative piece in Mother Jones magazine is the most thoroughly documented report I have seen on the politics of long-term solitary confinement in California. The ex-hostage convincingly demonstrates that a tool supposedly created to staunch prison gang violence is being used to torture prisoners who engage in prison activism, hold Afro-centric worldviews, or simply read the wrong books.
As even prison administrators admit, only a small minority of those being held in long-term solitary confinement are classified as gang members; even fewer are gang leaders. Rather, most are so-called "gang associates." It's hard to see how a prisoner serving a lengthy term can avoid all associations with the ubiquitous prison gangs. But the evidence used to toss prisoners into long-term SHU isolation can be very thin, including possession of such written materials as:
"Other than the inmate, there is only one person present -- the gang investigator -- and he serves as judge, jury, and prosecutor. Much of the evidence -- anything provided by informants -- is confidential and thus impossible to refute. That's what Judge Salavati [in Iran] told us after our prosecutor spun his yarn about our role in a vast American-Israeli conspiracy: There were heaps of evidence, but neither we nor our lawyer were allowed to see it."
In the wake of last year’s hunger strikes, California prison officials claim they are reforming the system. SHU prisoners are now allowed calendars, as well as handballs to use in the small concrete dog runs in which they can exercise, alone, for one hour each day. If they abstain from gang activity for a year, they can now get a deck of cards; three years earns them a chessboard.
But there's a major catch. The Department of Corrections is vastly expanding the list of serious rules violations. Mere possession of articles or pictures depicting "security threat groups" (the new name for gangs) will constitute "serious rule violations on par with stabbing somebody," Bauer reports. And the list of such groups has expanded to 1,500, including everything from Juggalos (followers of the popular hip hop group Insane Clown Posse) to "revolutionary groups” to "Black-Non Specific," a term that, as Bauer notes, suggests that "any group with the word 'black' in its name can be considered disruptive."
The rationale for this repression that has been repeatedly condemned by international and U.S. human rights groups is the need to reduce gang influence in prisons. However, Bauer explains,there is no evidence that such solitary confinement regimens reduce prison violence. To the conrary, prisons that have reduced or eliminated supermaxes have seen parallel reductions in prison violence.