In the latest personal testimony on the cruelty of solitary confinement, one of the American hikers who was held hostage in Iran details how the conditions at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison are at least as bad, and arguably even worse, than those he experienced in Iran.
Writing about his visit to Pelican Bay in Mother Jones, Shane Bauer says the distinctions between the conditions — a “piece of foam” in Pelican Bay versus a mattress in Iran and the fact that his Iran prison cell was twice the size of the American one — are relatively insignificant, compared to the torture and mental manipulation of being totally and completely isolated, which left Bauer wishing every morning for an interrogation in which he would be “sat down in a padded, soundproof room, blindfolded and questioned, just so I could talk to somebody.” At least in his cell in Iran, he had a window, a luxury that allowed him to keep track of the time of day and lacking at Pelican Bay. He writes:
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.
Equally significant is Bauer’s description of the process for putting some 80,000 prisoners into solitary confinement, often for years or decades at a time. Unlike in Iran, where Bauer was accompanied by a lawyer when he faced the Revolutionary Court in Iran (though he wasn’t allowed to speak to him), the decision in California to put an inmate in solitary confinement is made at a private hearing lasting about 20 minutes that absolutely no one can witness, and in which the evidence is secret. The decision is made at the discretion of just one man, an institutional gang investigator.
A common justification is to isolate those thought to be “associates” in prison gangs, and the types of evidence deemed to prove that fact have included possession of black literature, left-wing materials and writing about prisoner rights as evidence.
Defenders of the practice point out that an internal appeal process exists. But when Bauer asked “for an example of an appeal resulting in a reversal of a gang validation, they couldn’t produce a single case. Gang investigator Barneburg, who has worked at Pelican Bay for 15 years, has never seen a validation appeal succeed either—evidence, he says, of his team’s thoroughness.”
If inmates have exhausted the internal appeals process, they can take their case to court, where inmates who represent themselves succeed less than one percent of the time, according to one attorney who has represented inmates in the process. Getting out once in solitary confinement can be even tougher.
Inmates at Pelican Bay have been isolated for as long as 42 years, even as the ACLU, Physicians for Human Rights and The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law all call the practice torture and Human Rights Watch calls it at the very least cruel and inhuman treatment in violation of international law.
A recent report revealed that even youths as young as 13 are being subjected to this treatment, though typically for weeks or months and not years. But every study of solitary confinement has shown negative psychological effects after just 10 days. Bauer includes an excerpt from his journal on the experience:
Solitary confinement is not some sort of cathartic horror of blazing nerves and searing skin and heads smashing blindly into walls and screaming. Those moments come, but they are not the essence of solitary. They are events that penetrate the essence. They are stones tossed into an abyss. They are not the abyss itself…
Solitary confinement is a living death. Death because it is the removal of nearly everything that characterizes humanness, living because within it you are still you. The lights don’t turn out as in real death. Time isn’t erased as in sleep…