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EXCLUSIVE: “No Way Out”–Freed Hiker Shane Bauer on Solitary Confinement from Iran to United States

StoryOctober 22, 2012
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Shane Bauer was one of three Americans detained in 2009 while hiking in Iraq’s Kurdish region near the Iranian border. He and Josh Fattal were held for 26 months, and Sarah Shourd — now Bauer’s wife — was held for 13 months, much of it in solitary confinement. Seven months after being freed from prison in Iran, Bauer began investigating solitary confinement in the United States. Now, in his first major article since his release for Mother Jones magazine, Bauer finds California prisoners are being held for years in isolation based on allegations they are connected to prison gangs. In his first live television interview since his release, Bauer joins us to discuss his report. [includes rush transcript]

Click here to watch the 25-minute extended interview with Shane Bauer.

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Web ExclusiveOct 22, 2012Part Two: Shane Bauer: “Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re in San Rafael, California, on our 100-city tour, at the Community Media Center of Marin, its first live global broadcast.

We turn now to a major new investigation by Shane Bauer, one of three Americans detained in 2009 while hiking in Iraq’s Kurdish region near the Iranian border. He and Josh Fattal were held for 26 months in Iran, and Sarah Shourd—now Shane’s wife—was held for 13 months, most of it in solitary confinement.

Well, seven months after being freed from prison in Iran, Shane Bauer began investigating solitary confinement in the United States. Now, his first major article since his release, he finds California prisoners are being held for years in isolation based on allegations they’re connected to prison gangs. Evidence against them might include possession of, quote, “black literature” or writings about prisoners’ rights. Shane’s report appears on the cover of the new issue of Mother Jones magazine. It’s called: “Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. [Then] I Went Inside America’s Prisons.” “We throw thousands of men in the hole for the books they read, the company they keep, the beliefs they hold. Here’s why.”

This video report that goes with the article documents Shane Bauer’s journey to California’s Pelican Bay prison, his first time behind bars since being released.

SHANE BAUER: I don’t know what it’s going to be like, to be honest. I’m curious, you know, what it’s going to be like to step in. I haven’t been in a prison since—you know, since I was released in Iran. And not just any prison, we’re going to be walking into Pelican Bay.

My name is Shane Bauer.

REPORTER: As they were hiking right along Iraq-Irania—Iranian border.

SHANE BAUER: In 2009, I was captured on the Iran-Iraq border with Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd.

REPORTER: Being sentenced to eight years in—

SHANE BAUER: We never knew when or if we would get out.

REPORTER: Bauer denied the charges.

SHANE BAUER: I spent four months in solitary confinement. I didn’t expect to find the same—or worse—back home in California.

JOSH FATTAL: Solitary confinement was the worst experience of all of our lives.

SHANE BAUER: Just—just getting my cameras ready. Pelican Bay prison is right behind these trees over there.

I have this feeling of weight, of heaviness.

I’m nervous. We’re about to pull in. I’m pulling up right now to Pelican Bay State Prison.

I know I’m going to see people who have been living in solitary for a very long time.

LT. CHRIS ACOSTA: Just always be on your toes. Always be on your toes, OK?

SHANE BAUER: My guides today are Lieutenant Chris Acosta and the institutional gang investigator, David Barneburg.

Pelican Bay, one of the first supermaxes in the country, is infamous for its Security Housing Unit, or SHU. While some of these inmates are murderers, they aren’t put in the SHU for their original crimes. Some have never even broken prison rules. Inmates are held in the SHU indefinitely because the Department of Corrections says they are connected, however tenuously, to prison gangs.

It’s been seven months since I’ve been inside a prison cell. I thought this was going to be better than it is. This cell is one of eight in a pod. At a little over 11-by-seven feet, it’s smaller than any I’ve ever inhabited.

We’re in a SHU cell right now. The inmate is outside. This is where he sleeps, when there’s another cell mate that sleeps up there. It’s pretty bleak, I think. There’s no natural light.

Without a window in my cell, I wouldn’t have had the sound of ravens, the rare breezes or the drops of rain.

Even when the window was closed, like in the winter, it smelled so suffocating. And just having that light come in and seeing the light move across the cell, you know, and seeing what—I would kind of gauge what time of day it was because of that. Why don’t they have windows here?

LT. CHRIS ACOSTA: Just the way it was designed.


LT. CHRIS ACOSTA: I don’t know. I can’t explain that.

DAVID BARNEBURG: The inmate will be in the cell, and then a food tray will be passed through the cell.

SHANE BAUER: If they ever leave the pod, prisoners have to strip naked, pass their hands through a food slot to be handcuffed, then wait for the door to open.

DAVID BARNEBURG: Inmates come out to, you know, get some exercise. There’s more room to run out here.

SHANE BAUER: Prisoners only get an hour in this concrete dog run every day.

DAVID BARNEBURG: They’re protected from the rain during the winter, and it’s monitored with a video camera by the control booth.

SHANE BAUER: In Iran, the open-air cell I exercised in was twice the size of this. Iranian prison is never far from my thoughts. My guides are just as curious about my situation as I am about Pelican Bay.

LT. CHRIS ACOSTA: She’s your girlfriend, right?


LT. CHRIS ACOSTA: Or fiancee?


LT. CHRIS ACOSTA: Are you still with her?


LT. CHRIS ACOSTA: OK. Did they let you guys kiss and all that?

SHANE BAUER: Yeah, there was no one out there. You know, it’s like this, so—there’s a camera, you know.

LT. CHRIS ACOSTA: So, were you allowed to have like

DAVID BARNEBURG: Physical contact?

LT. CHRIS ACOSTA: —physical contact?

SHANE BAUER: Yeah, when we went outside.

LT. CHRIS ACOSTA: OK. Well, can’t beat that.

SHANE BAUER: At Pelican Bay, decisions about who gets put in the SHU come down to one man: Barneburg.

DAVID BARNEBURG: I’m a man just like you are and just like everyone else in here. I don’t want to see anybody else put in SHU as a gang member for unjust reasons.

SHANE BAUER: He’s essentially the judge, jury and prosecutor in a process called a “gang validation.” Evidence against inmates can involve something as simple as appearing in the same photo as a gang member. In my review of dozens of inmates’ files, California officials frequently cite possession of black literature, left-wing books and writing about prisoner rights as evidence of gang membership. No actual judge is involved from the gathering of evidence to sentencing.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt from a video report by Shane Bauer accompanying his cover story for Mother Jones magazine called “No Way Out: Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons.” “We throw thousands of men in the hole for the books they read, the company they keep, the beliefs they hold. Here’s why.”

Well, for more, we are joined now by Shane Bauer in his first live interview since his release.

Shane, welcome to Democracy Now!

SHANE BAUER: Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: “Locked up in Iran,” again, you say, “I saw men put in the hold for the company they kept, the books they read, the beliefs they held. I did not expect to [find] the same back home in California.” How was it for you to go into California’s prisons after you, yourself, experienced what you did, including four months of solitary confinement in Iran?

SHANE BAUER: It was—it was difficult, you know, to go back inside, to visit a solitary cell, to actually step back inside a cell that was built for solitary confinement. And it was—it was surprising for me to see the difference, how small the cells were in California, the fact that they had—have no light, no windows. Things—the small things that meant a lot to me in prison, you know, were absent.

AMY GOODMAN: You write, “The experience is eerily like my dreams, where I am a prisoner in another man’s cell. Like the cell I go back to in my sleep, this one is built for solitary confinement. I’m taking intermittent, heaving breaths, like I can’t get enough air.” You say, “This still happens to me from time to time, [especially] in tight spaces.”


AMY GOODMAN: How did you survive solitary confinement?

SHANE BAUER: You know, the only way, I think, to get through solitary confinement is to kind of be diligent about, you know, maintaining your sanity—exercising, reading, when you can. You know, it’s not easy. There’s times that I wasn’t able to do that.

And now, being out, you know, it’s—I spent four months in solitary confinement of my 26 months in prison in Iran, and now, you know, it sticks with you. It’s been with me. It’s something that, as I described in the article, is—you know, I still deal with psychologically and physically. And that’s normal for people who experience solitary confinement. And in California, you know, there’s people that have been in solitary confinement for 10 years, 20 years.

AMY GOODMAN: And you write, the critical point is many never know when they will get out.

SHANE BAUER: Exactly, yeah. So, about 4,000 people in California have indefinite sentences of solitary confinement. You know, there’s about—in Pelican Bay prison alone, 89 people have been in solitary for 20 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about some of the people in solitary confinement. How does someone get thrown in the hole here?

SHANE BAUER: So, the way that somebody gets an indeterminate sentence of solitary confinement is by being—going through a process called validation, where they’re validated as a member or an associate of a prison gang. In order to do that, the prison—prison officials have to cite evidence, a minimum of three pieces of evidence, to show that they’re actually affiliated with a gang. Now, almost 80 percent of people who have indeterminate sentences are what are called “gang associates,” which means that they, you know, may have spoken to somebody who is involved in a gang, appeared in the same picture. It could be something as small as having their name in—written in the cell of a person who is a gang member.

So, one case that I deal with in the article is that of Dietrich Pennington. He has been in solitary for four years based on three pieces of evidence, which are—one of which is an article from the San Francisco Bay View newspaper, which was kind of an op-ed-style article complaining of guards—where a prisoner complains of guards taking literature from his cell. Another piece of evidence against him is a cup that he had with a dragon on it, which is considered a gang symbol by the Department of Corrections. The third piece of evidence was the journal he kept, in which he—he wrote about African-American history. He, you know, mentions Nat Turner, Malcolm X, had statistics about the number of hangings in the mid-20th century of African Americans. And in it, he has a quote by George Jackson, that was—that quote is used as evidence of gang affiliation. So he’s been in for four years now and doesn’t know, you know, when he’ll get out.

AMY GOODMAN: You write, “The decision to put a man in solitary indefinitely is made at internal hearings that last, prisoners say, about 20 minutes. [They are] closed-door affairs. CDCR told me I couldn’t witness one. No one can.”

And then you go on to say, “When Josh Fattal and I finally came before the Revolutionary Court in Iran, we had a lawyer present, but weren’t [allowed] to speak to him. In California, an inmate facing the worst punishment our penal system has to offer short of death can’t even have a lawyer in the room.”

SHANE BAUER: Right. You know, when a gang investigator, the staff member, gathers evidence against a prisoner, they, you know, basically take them in a room. They have this hearing where they present the evidence. A lot of the evidence is actually confidential, especially evidence that comes from prison informants. So, it may be that this prisoner doesn’t even know actually what the evidence is against him. And like I said, he’s not allowed to have a lawyer. He can contest it verbally, but that’s the extent of it.

AMY GOODMAN: Why can’t—what is the rationale that he can’t have a lawyer?

SHANE BAUER: I don’t know. I asked the warden in Pelican Bay the same question, and he said that they felt that their internal review process was—was sufficient. There’s also no judge involved in the process. And, you know, I’d like to say that in many of these cases, like the case of Dietrich Pennington, these inmates haven’t even, you know, broken prison rules. They haven’t committed, you know, acts of violence in the prison. It’s unrelated, really, to—to any kind of violent act or—you know, there’s—a prisoner who actually hurts somebody can also be put in the SHU for a determinate amount of time, the longest of which is killing a guard. The prisoner gets five years in solitary confinement. But, you know, having these kind of piece of evidence, like drawings or books or a letter written to somebody, is, you know, indefinite.

AMY GOODMAN: Yet gang affiliation can be longer in solitary than killing a guard.


AMY GOODMAN: Having a symbol or a note. We were just talking about Mumia Abu-Jamal. You also refer to him in your piece—


AMY GOODMAN: —in Mother Jones magazine.

SHANE BAUER: Yeah, one of the cases that I—that I looked into was that of Ricky Gray. And he—in the evidence of his gang validation is mentioned, as gang material, writings by Mumia Abu-Jamal.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s gang material.

SHANE BAUER: Yeah, according to CDCR.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Shane Bauer in his first live interview since he was released from an Iranian prison. In that time he was jailed for more than two years, four months of that time was in solitary confinement. We’ll come back to this conversation in a moment.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in San Rafael, California. We’ll be in California for the next four days as we continue our 100-city tour. We’re at the [Community Media Center] of Marin.

We’re joined by Shane Bauer in his first TV interview, live TV interview, since he was released from prison in Iran, where he and Josh Fattal, another U.S. hiker, were held for more than two years. Sarah Shourd, who would later marry Shane, was held for more than a year.

I want to play another excerpt from the video report that goes with the Mother Jones article Shane Bauer wrote called “No Way Out,” when he goes inside California’s Pelican Bay prison to report on prisoners in solitary confinement and the immense challenges they face to being released into less isolating conditions.

SHANE BAUER: Much of the evidence brought by gang investigators like Barneburg comes from informants. It’s confidential and can’t be refuted.

DAVID BARNEBURG: They’ve got multiple different avenues to review the gang material that’s being used against them and challenge it.

SHANE BAUER: But Barneburg says he has never seen a successful appeal in his 15 years at Pelican Bay. When journalists are led into the SHU, the only inmates allowed to talk are those who are informing on fellow prisoners. They don’t like me asking why.

Could we talk to a prisoner who’s not going through the debriefing process?

LT. CHRIS ACOSTA: When we go up to the main line.

SHANE BAUER: But within the SHU?

LT. CHRIS ACOSTA: No. We just always use these guys right here.


LT. CHRIS ACOSTA: We just don’t.

SHANE BAUER: So my guides take me out of the SHU to meet Paul Bocanegra. He was in solitary for 12 years.

PAUL BOCANEGRA: It is punishment. It’s meant to break a person.

SHANE BAUER: He got out by informing on other prisoners, a process called “debriefing,” which, among prisoners, can mean death.

PAUL BOCANEGRA: You know, you’re going to be targeted for assault, possibly murder. So that’s always in the back of your head.

DAVID BARNEBURG: You know, there’s a lot of misconceptions, a lot of myths about the debrief policy, and it gets hammered a lot. That debrief document is checked, double-checked against movement rosters, against other information provided by the debriefers, by other sources.

SHANE BAUER: But I found that at least one inmate in another California prison was put in the SHU based on evidence from informants that was eventually discovered to be false. Years later, that prisoner remains in the SHU.

The other way to get out is to be deemed inactive, a review that only happens every six years. Many less prisoners get out through that avenue than by debriefing.

PAUL BOCANEGRA: Once you’re validated, it’s hard because you constantly have people leaving the SHU and giving up information, so it’s like—it’s a revolving door.

SHANE BAUER: These prisoners are criminals. I was a hostage. But a part of me relates to them. Their desperate words sound like the ones that ricocheted through my own head when I was inside.

PAUL BOCANEGRA: I think any time in solitary is enough time to break a human being.

AMY GOODMAN: Shane Bauer in his video report for Mother Jones. His piece, the cover story of the magazine, called “No Way Out.” Shane, you could come back to this country and just be a free man, but you choose instead to go back to the SHU, to the Security Housing Unit, to look at Pelican Bay, even as it makes you gasp to be dealing with these tiny rooms of confinement, alone, as you did in Iran. Why?

SHANE BAUER: You know, after having gone through an experience like that, it’s—like I said, it’s something that sticks with me. It’s kind of, you know, become a part of me. And when I got out of prison, I heard that there was a hunger strike happening in California involving 12,000 inmates. The hunger strike was to protest the conditions of solitary confinement. Having had a hunger strike myself in Iran, that, you know, drew my interest. And as I started to kind of look into it, you know, after—after hearing about this hunger strike, you know, finding out what this policy actually was, it was something that I felt that I couldn’t, you know, turn away from.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the letter to Governor Jerry Brown that was written by four prisoners confined in the Pelican Bay State Prison SHU, the Security Housing Unit. They critique the policy changes proposed by California prison officials after they went on a hunger strike, noting that they include a, quote, “four year minimum step-down program, which prisoners may participate in to earn their way out of the SHU. This is also unacceptable!” they write. “Four years is too long, [and] the incentives for each step are not adequate. Any step-down program should have a maximum limit of 18 months and require meaningful incentives from the start, such as increased opportunity for out-of-cell contact with other prisoners, additional programs and privileges, including regular phone calls and contact visits,” they write.

SHANE BAUER: This is very important. California is going through reforms, the Department of Corrections, for this gang validation policy. What, you know, has been heard about the most is that the minimum amount of time that somebody has to spend in solitary will go from the current six years, before a review even takes place, to four years.

But what is also happening, what is—what is less known, is that the number of groups that actually, you know, members of which can get sent to the SHU will be going from the current seven groups, seven prison gangs, to up to 1,500 groups. The California Department of Corrections is going to be including what they call “disruptive groups” in—you know, in their new policy. And the list they gave me of disruptive groups is 1,500 groups long. This includes Bloods and Crips, street gangs that make up a very large percentage of California prison population. It also includes the Black Panthers and kind of, you know, more political groups like that.

AMY GOODMAN: Dietrich Pennington, tell us more about him.

SHANE BAUER: Dietrich was a prisoner who—you know, he has been in prison for quite a while, convicted of murder. Since he was put in prison, he—the only—he’s committed two rules violations, one of which was coming late to roll call, the other of which was refusing to be housed in a dorm-style cell—you know, nothing that could be really construed as dangerous. But he was put in the SHU four years ago for having the materials that I mentioned earlier, these—you know, the journal and a newspaper article and this cup. His—this kind of evidence, in my investigation, I found, is not uncommon. Prison officials cite books like Machiavelli’s The Prince. Sun Tzu’s Art of War is used in gang validations. Anything written by former Black Panther George Jackson is evidence for gang affiliation.

AMY GOODMAN: Even quotes.

SHANE BAUER: Even quotes.


SHANE BAUER: Dietrich had a quote in his—in his journal that was used. I don’t remember what it said exactly, but it was—you know, there was no reference to violence. It was actually—in the entirety of the journal, which I read, there is no—there is no reference to violence or any kind of gang activity that I could see. I mean, it was all kind of musings about prisoner rights. He referenced a Time magazine exposé about prison conditions.

AMY GOODMAN: He quotes figures like W.E.B. Du Bois and Malcolm X, passages in which Pennington ruminates at length on what he calls, quote, “the oppression and violence inflicted upon us here in maximum security” —


AMY GOODMAN: —which is referencing a Time magazine exposé.

SHANE BAUER: Yeah. You know, and other evidence that’s been used against Latino inmates has included drawings that depict Aztec figures. The confidential gang validation policy that I obtained from a source says that words like—Spanish words like tío and hermano can actually indicate gang activity.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about jailhouse lawyers and advocates being targeted—

SHANE BAUER: Yeah. Some—

AMY GOODMAN: —for the Solitary Housing Unit?

SHANE BAUER: Yeah. Somebody that I write about at length in this article is Vincent Bruce. He was also put in prison for murder over 20 years ago. And while he was in prison, he start advocating—he learned—started learning law, what prisoners call “jailhouse law.” Basically, you know, he learned how to file appeals within the prison about issues like inadequate nutrition and food, kind of issues of prison conditions. He participated in some hunger strikes and sitdowns in the prison yard. And then he started assisting other inmates in their grievances and in their actual legal cases.

He was—he was put in the SHU as a gang associate. When he was put in the SHU, he actually sued the Department of Corrections, alleging that they were retaliating against him for his jailhouse lawyering. In his case, he says that the gang investigator told him that that was the case, that the warden didn’t like what he was doing. The case drug on for many years. And he—during that time, he was actually released from the SHU. The Department of Corrections settled in his case, and days after the settlement, he was put back in the SHU. Then, later in his validation, the Department of Corrections actually cited his litigation against them as gang activity. He’s still in the SHU today.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, Shane, how did prisoners who spoke to you respond to you, and guards and officials of the prison system, as a former prisoner on—in solitary confinement, as you were in Iran?

SHANE BAUER: When I went to Pelican Bay, everybody that I saw knew who I was. They knew my situation. In the course of this investigation, I corresponded with about 20 prisoners, and every one of them knew our case in considerable detail, actually. And I think the fact that I, myself, had been in solitary confinement, you know, kind of led them to be willing to share their case information, to get access to their documents.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue this conversation and post it at Shane Bauer, one of three American hikers imprisoned in Iran after being apprehended on the Iraqi border in 2009, spent more than two years, 26 months, in Tehran’s Evin Prison, four of them in solitary, now back to being a reporter living in Oakland with his fellow hostage, now wife, Sarah Shourd. Together with the third former hostage, Josh Fattal, they’re writing a book about their captivity, which is due out in 2014. Shane’s cover story is the cover of Mother Jones magazine, called “No Way Out: Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons.” Support by the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.

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Part Two: Shane Bauer: “Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons”

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