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A Hunger Strike Against Solitary Confinement: Shane Bauer on Inhuman Prisons from California to Iran

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More than 12,000 prisoners in California have entered their fifth day of a hunger strike in a push to end long-term solitary confinement, which they call a form of “indefinite state-sanctioned torture.” Other demands include ending harsh group punishment, redefining gang activity, improving food quality, and increasing access to healthcare and education services. In addition to refusing meals, more than a thousand prisoners are also missing classes and prison work programs. This is the third large-scale hunger strike in the past two years. The current fast began at Pelican Bay State Prison and has now spread to two-thirds of the state’s 33 prisons. Corrections officials have reportedly responded by threatening to search prisoners’ cells, subject them to mental health evaluations, and deny them access to visitors and mail. “While the solitary confinement is at the core of it, it’s kind of about a lot of other issues,” says Shane Bauer, a reporter who investigated the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons for Mother Jones magazine last year. “It’s become a much more widespread hunger strike. Each prison has its own demands. There are demands you see for rise in wages, from 13 cents an hour to $1 an hour, demand for the return of educational classes, and really the demands for the return of a lot of services that have been cut in recent years.” Bauer began investigating solitary confinement in the United States shortly after being released from 26 months in an Iranian prison.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: More than 12,000 prisoners in California have entered their fifth day of a hunger strike in a push to end long-term solitary confinement, which they call a form of “indefinite state-sanctioned torture.” In addition to refusing meals, more than a thousand prisoners are also missing classes and prison work programs. This is the third large-scale hunger strike in the past two years. The current fast began at Pelican Bay State Prison and has now spread to two-thirds of the state’s 33 prisons. Corrections officials have reportedly responded by threatening to search prisoners’ cells, subject them to mental health evaluations, and deny them access to visitors and mail.

Well, this is a video produced by the Prisoners’ Hunger Strike Solidarity Committee listing their demands. It includes a response from Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections.

PRISONER HUNGER STRIKE SOLIDARITY COMMITTEE DEMANDS: End long-term confinement. End group punishment and administrative abuse. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify gang status criteria. Provide adequate and nutritious food. Create and expand constructive programming.

TERRY THORNTON: There are some things that we cannot do. Some of the other things like a calendar, a cap, those are things that actually may be doable. But I don’t know that we’re going to be pressured or coerced into doing these things.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The hunger strike comes as California has asked the Supreme Court to release it from an order to reduce its prison population by about 10,000 prisoners this year due to inhumane conditions. According to court documents, at least one California prisoner “needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies.” California has had a prisoner suicide rate that at times has been 80 percent higher than the national average.

AMY GOODMAN: Reporter Shane Bauer, one of the three American hikers who was held in solitary confinement in Iran, went inside California’s Pelican Bay prison last year. This is a clip from a video report he made last year when officials gave him a tour of one of the 11-by-seven-foot solitary confinement cells in the Security Housing Unit, or SHU.

SHANE BAUER: 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.

AMY GOODMAN: That report was by our guest, journalist Shane Bauer, who joins us now from San Fransisco. He spent 26 months in Tehran’s Evin Prison, four of them in solitary. Seven months after being freed, Bauer began investigating solitary confinement in the United States. His cover story for Mother Jones last year was headlined “Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons.” In it, he found 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 Bauer, welcome back Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Talk about this strike that’s going on throughout California prison system.

SHANE BAUER: Thanks for having me, Amy.

So, right now they’re—the California Department of Corrections is reporting about 2,400 people on hunger strike [Correction: 12,421 prisoners on hunger strike]. You know, by their criteria, this means that people have refused meals for nine consecutive meals. But the numbers of people that aren’t eating might be much higher.

At the core of this hunger strike is the issue of indefinite detainment in solitary confinement in the Security Housing Units, or SHU. The way that it works now, an inmate is deemed a gang affiliate and placed in the SHU for an indeterminate amount of time. In Pelican Bay Prison, the average amount of time spent there is seven-and-a-half years, but there are around 80 people that have been in that prison for 20 years or more, one man who’s been in for 42 years.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, now, Shane, the prison authority’s definition of “gangs” seems to be pretty elastic, not having to do with any actual activities or illegal acts of the prisoners within the system. Could you talk about how they define these, quote, “gangs”?

SHANE BAUER: Right. So, up until about a year ago, there was about—there were seven gangs that qualified for placement, indeterminate placement, in the SHU. These are prison gangs, you know, really dangerous gangs like the Mexican Mafia that can, you know, kind of run crime out onto the street. But the criteria for determining whether somebody is a member or an associate of those gangs is kind of notoriously loose. I have seen cases of people who are put in the SHU and deemed gang members because they have academic books by the Black Panthers or journal writings about African-American history. Even the materials for gang investigators teach that the use of the words ”tío” or ”hermano,” “uncle” or “brother” in Spanish, can indicate gang activity. So it’s a very loose kind of criteria. And somebody, like you said, doesn’t actually have to do anything to get put in there. They don’t have to, you know, hurt somebody to get an indefinite SHU term.

Since the last hunger strike about a year and a half ago, the Department of Corrections has been—has kind of reformed its policy to where now an inmate who is considered an associate, not a member, but somebody who kind of associates with one of these gangs, has to actually commit a serious rules violation to get put in the SHU. But at the same time, they’ve kind of changed the rules for what that means. So, in the past, that would mean, you know, an inmate stabbed somebody, tried to escape, something like that. But now a serious rules violation can include, you know, the possession of these books or drawings by an inmate that show gang symbols. So it’s kind of the same—the same kind of stuff that has always been used to put people in the SHU indefinitely.

AMY GOODMAN: Shane Bauer, in your major report for Mother Jones last year, you examined how hard it is for prisoners who are in solitary confinement due to alleged gang affiliations to appeal for their release into a less restrictive area. This is a clip from the video that accompanied your report when you spoke with officials at Pelican Bay Prison.

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.

AMY GOODMAN: That report from Shane Bauer with Mother Jones, Shane with us in the studio in San Francisco, award-winning investigative journalist who himself was imprisoned and in solitary confinement in Iran in 2009. Shane, talk about the demands right now of the prisoners who are on hunger strike.

SHANE BAUER: One of the core demands relates to what—the video clip that you were just showing. It’s an end to this debriefing process. So, the way it’s set up now is, one of the two ways to get out is to inform on other prisoners or snitch. And, you know, that involves kind of giving a roster of names of people who are involved in the gang that the person is alleged to be affiliated with. This is an extremely dangerous situation. You know, when somebody does this, they’re kind of marked for death by actual gang members. But a lot of prisoners face this dilemma where they either have to kind of stay in solitary confinement for years at a time—four years is the minimum amount of time before their case can be reviewed—or to kind of give up names. So it creates this kind of revolving-door scenario where people are giving up names to get out and other people are being brought in. And in a case where somebody is not an actual gang affiliate and they want to get out, you know, there’s a lot of pressure to kind of give up something, you know, to get out of this extremely difficult situation.

Also right now with this hunger strike, as opposed to the one a year and a half ago, while the solitary confinement is at the core of it, it’s kind of about a lot of other issues. It’s become a much more kind of widespread hunger strike. Each prison kind of has its own demands. There are demands you see for rise in wages from 13 cents an hour to a dollar an hour, demand for the return of educational classes, and really the kind of demands for the return of a lot of the services that have been cut in California prisons over the past 30 years.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Shane, given this remarkable level of resistance now over several years by the inmates, how have they been able to organize statewide and be able to maintain their networks, or I guess their collectives, within the prisons, even to the point now of producing a video explaining some of their—some of their demands?

SHANE BAUER: Well, there’s a lot of kind of coordination with groups inside and outside that are kind of connected, you know, throughout the system that are kind of making this kind of communication possible. It’s extremely difficult in solitary confinement, as you know, to communicate with people outside of your pod of eight inmates, let alone across the state.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play a comment from Sarah Shourd, who, with you, were arrested in 2009, and Josh Fattal, on the border of Iran and Kurdistan, Iraq. You are both married now. You and Sarah got married. You were released after spending months in solitary confinement. Last year, Sarah Shourd spoke at Amnesty International conference and described the prison conditions she underwent.

SARAH SHOURD: During my 13-and-a-half months as a political hostage in Iran, I was held in solitary confinement at Evin Prison in Tehran. After just two months, my mind began to slip. I would spend large portions of my day crouched down on my hands and knees by a small slot in my cell door, listening for any sounds that might distract me from the terror of my isolation. I suffered from insomnia, nightmares, emotional detachment and violent panic attacks. More than once, I completely lost control and began screaming and beating at the walls until my knuckles bled. Perhaps the most unbearable mental torture was not knowing when I would see my family again. Sometimes worrying about my mother would keep me from sleeping for days at a time. And it was eight months before they even let me call her and tell her that I was alive. Even then, that phone call lasted about five minutes.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Sarah Shourd describing Iran, her imprisonment there. Shane, as you go from your imprisonment in Iran to Pelican Bay, to the prison system in California, talk about what you find—the similarities, the differences—and the significance of this strike today.

SHANE BAUER: Well, I mean, the conditions in Iranian prison are awful. We were in a political prison, a ward of, you know, people—pro-democracy activists, things like that. People are physically tortured there. But what really shocked me about Pelican Bay, compared to my experience in Iran, is, one, the length of time that people spend there. Sarah spent 13-and-a-half months in solitary confinement. It’s an extremely long amount of time. In Pelican Bay, that’s nothing. I mean, like I said, seven-and-a-half years is the average time. But also, the actual cells—the cells are smaller, and there’s not—there’s no windows in the cells, so inmates never see the outside. When they go to exercise, they go to kind of a larger cell with a plexiglass roof. But I spoke to inmates there that hadn’t seen a tree in 12 years. And, you know, there’s no comparison to that kind of situation in Iran.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you relate that to this astonishingly high suicide rate that is—has now become endemic in the California prison system?

SHANE BAUER: Yeah. In California, around 40 percent of suicides are happening in isolation units. So this is, you know, the vast majority of—when you take into account the population, which is around 11,000 or 12,000 people in isolation in California, the rate of suicide is far higher. There’s been—psychologists have kind of named a specific syndrome that comes with long-term isolation. They call it the SHU syndrome, which, you know, includes kind of violent outbursts, suicidal thoughts, hallucinations. People really lose their mind in these places. A lot of inmates I’ve corresponded with have talked about people cutting themselves, kind of, you know, throwing feces around the cells, and just kind of hearing constant screams. You know, it’s the kind of situation that human beings are not intended to endure. You know, we need social contact. We need to interact with other human beings to have our own kind of identity and maintain our sanity.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Shane, we want to thank you very much for being with us. Shane Bauer, award-winning investigative journalist. He himself was imprisoned in solitary confinement in Iran, now back talking about the massive strike that is taking place throughout the prison system in California. And we will continue to follow this strike.

You can also go to our website to talk about—to see a discussion about another hunger strike, and that’s Guantánamo. Visit democracynow.org to hear an interview with former Guantánamo prosecutor Colonel Morris Davis about the ongoing hunger strike at Guantánamo. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.

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