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Solitary Confinement
October 18, 2012 11:30 PM   Subscribe

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." An article on solitary confinement (previously) by Shane Bauer, one of the three American hikers who were detained in Iran in 2009 (previously).
posted by homunculus (52 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 12:43 AM on October 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


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. "We put out really quality work," he says.

I'm speechless.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 1:10 AM on October 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


"We put out really quality work,"

Depressingly, the Dunning-Kruger effect means that he may actually believe this. Alternative pop psych: certainly if you lock people up on flimsy evidence all day there's a heavy psychological pressure to justify that.
posted by jaduncan at 1:26 AM on October 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


In California this fascist state, an inmate facing the worst punishment our penal system has to offer short of death can't even have a lawyer in the room. He can't gather or present evidence in his defense. He can't call witnesses. Much of the evidence—anything provided by informants—is confidential and thus impossible to refute.

This is a fucking travesty and if we were a moral people we would have our own Bastille day.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 1:32 AM on October 19, 2012 [15 favorites]


I read this yesterday and, in all seriousness, consider America's criminal justice and incarceration system to be the single largest issue that needs fixing. The 1% gets the attention, but the sheer size and structure if it, and the unfairness and cruelty baked into the system is jaw dropping.

However, in a two party system where one party has a vocal minority intent on taking America back to the dark ages it requires a special political movement to sell the story that unpicking the mess is not, in fact, going soft on crime.

I know the two issues - the widening income gap, the privatisation of government, the persecution of the poor on one hand and the justice system on the other are closely linked. But fixing income inequality is fundamentally a political question. Dealing with a justice system that broken, cruel and illegal should transcend party politics.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:50 AM on October 19, 2012 [10 favorites]


They are two sides of the same coin of unequal treatment by the state, and very bound up indeed. One set gets special treatment, one dehumanised side gets as much cruelty as is needed to crush them and demonstrate who is on top. The overwhelming message is that some people matter and some people do not.

What is truly revolutionary in both cases is telling the underclass that they matter, and are human, worth as much as other people, and should demand equal treatment.
posted by jaduncan at 1:59 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm currently reading "Why Nations Fail", and the US criminal justice system strikes me as the very example of a blatantly extractive institution embedded into an otherwise broadly inclusive political system. There's obviously a strong interest in punishing criminals, but punishing alleged criminals in definitely cruel (but, alas, not unusual) ways, and withholding many of their civil rights even long after they've done their time, regardless of how well they've rehabilitated themselves, that bears all the hallmarks of exploitation, before even considering the race angle.
posted by Skeptic at 2:28 AM on October 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


...playing cards, and chessboards are all banned. Only after a nearly three-week-long hunger strike last year were SHU inmates allowed calendars...

This is cruelty so deliberate and petty it's hard to comprehend.

The new policy...after a year of abstaining from gang activity in the SHU, an inmate will be able to get...a deck of cards...After three years, he'll be allowed a chessboard...

Oh, how generous and even-handed this must make them feel.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:48 AM on October 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Pretty representative of the system as a whole. More punishment, less justice. The good guys get to feel good and advance up the food chain, the public gets to hear about vague stories of how bad it is and think that justice was done.
posted by Slackermagee at 2:52 AM on October 19, 2012


The vindictiveness and cruelty written into the law is breathtaking. I would consider a sentence of 25 years in prison to be an almost unimaginably severe sanction; the law mandates such sentences for all kinds of crimes. I saw a story about a Ukrainian guy, drunk, who tried to open the emergency door of a plane just after landing. He was yelling that there was a fire on the wing. He's charged with 3 or 4 crimes, each of which carries a 25 year sentence. That's insane. 5 years - years! - in prison would be plenty, in my opinion. A deranged person is going to be treated as a dangerous terrorist here. Are they going to put this guy in a Supermax prison, where he'll be subjected to this hell of isolation? I'd not be surprised.
posted by thelonius at 2:54 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Before I left the States, one of my sons parroted something from school about if you're in trouble or lost find a policeman.

I honestly was at a loss as to what to say to him.
posted by digitalprimate at 3:09 AM on October 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


This is a fucking travesty and if we were a moral people we would have our own Bastille day.

Actually, the Bastille was, by most accounts, pretty comfy compared to this. (It was a prison for rich people: peasants got the king's galleys, hard labour, or simply the scaffold).
posted by Skeptic at 3:10 AM on October 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


After being apprehended on the Iran-Iraq border, Sarah Shourd, Josh Fattal, and I were held in Evin Prison's isolation ward for political prisoners. Sarah remained there for 13 months, Josh and I for 26 months. We were held incommunicado. We never knew when, or if, we would get out. We didn't go to trial for two years. When we did we had no way to speak to a lawyer and no means of contesting the charges against us, which included espionage. The alleged evidence the court held was "confidential."

The same thing might be said by people sitting in Guantanamo Bay. The only difference between Iran and the US would seem to be the lack of any Iranian stomach for water-boarding.
posted by three blind mice at 3:10 AM on October 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


The only difference between Iran and the US would seem to be the lack of any Iranian stomach for water-boarding.

I'm not sure this applies to Iranian prisoners.

And this may be as good an opportunity as any other to remember MeFi's Own Hoder.
posted by Skeptic at 3:17 AM on October 19, 2012 [8 favorites]


Are the SHUs private prisons? That would really go a long way to explaining their policy of only letting people out if they can put others in - why would you release an asset from your balance sheet, except in trade for equal or more assets?
posted by Dysk at 3:36 AM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Actually, the Bastille was, by most accounts, pretty comfy compared to this. (It was a prison for rich people: peasants got the king's galleys, hard labour, or simply the scaffold).

And if, after a few years of solitary, you asked people if they'd swap it for the king's galleys, hard labour, or even occasionally the scaffold...
posted by jaduncan at 3:47 AM on October 19, 2012


What I want to tell Acosta is that no part of my experience—not the uncertainty of when I would be free again, not the tortured screams of other prisoners—was worse than the four months I spent in solitary confinement. What would he say if I told him I needed human contact so badly that I woke every morning hoping to be interrogated? Would he believe that I once yearned to be sat down in a padded, soundproof room, blindfolded, and questioned, just so I could talk to somebody?

This is such a weird passage. They routinely use rape as a technique during their interrogations at Evin prison. Those tortured screams might have been from just that. And he hoped to be interrogated?
posted by Houstonian at 3:52 AM on October 19, 2012


One has been in solitary for 42 years.

Fucking hell.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 3:57 AM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


And he hoped to be interrogated?

You know, I'm quite an introverted person, but I believe that after four months of solitary, I'd probably also take my chances...
posted by Skeptic at 4:00 AM on October 19, 2012


This is such a weird passage.

Not really. He's telling us that solitary confinement was so painful that he would have traded a different, supposedly worse, kind of torture for it.
posted by MuffinMan at 4:01 AM on October 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


He may have been confident that he wasn't going to be physically abused, since the Iranians had not inflicted physical violence on him up to that point.
posted by thelonius at 4:08 AM on October 19, 2012


Not enough people care. Not enough people realize, all those "rights" and "freedoms" are, in part, canaries in cages. When the rights are forgotten or denied, it's like the canary dies. It means the atmosphere has gone bad, and you have to GTFO or otherwise fix the problem.

So much of this is completely contrary to how I was taught America works. I'm supposed to get teary eyed and full of pride, for this? USA? Number one, in imprisonment. Land of the free no longer, land of torture and life-time prison sentences.

Oh, yea. American Exceptionalism. Our prisons are exceptionally bad. Our justice exceptionally crap.
posted by Goofyy at 4:15 AM on October 19, 2012 [13 favorites]


Every day I thank the stars that I live in Europe: with liberty and justice for all.
posted by EnterTheStory at 4:47 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky
posted by orme at 4:50 AM on October 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


EnterTheStory: Every day I thank the stars that I live in Europe: with liberty and justice for all.

I'm live in Europe but I don't feel quite so superior myself.
posted by nfg at 4:54 AM on October 19, 2012


@nfg > I'm live in Europe but I don't feel quite so superior myself.

I agree we also have problems. The whole concept of prison is not fit for purpose, but that's another topic. And maybe Scotland has less brutal prisons than other places. But the way that some Americans take pride in hurting others shocks me. I stress "some" - maybe it's a tiny minority. But it's enough to ensure that fixing this evil is not a vote winner.
posted by EnterTheStory at 6:17 AM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


But the way that some Americans take pride in hurting others shocks me.

At least those types of folks have an excuse. What's ours?
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 6:26 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Are the SHUs private prisons?

Pelican Bay, and other SHUs in the state, are run by the state.

However, not all the inmates housed in the SHU are alleged gang leaders. For example, Ernesto Lira was a petty thief serving time for minor drug possession. He was sent to Pelican Bay for an indefinite term, after authorities determined he was associated with a violent Latino prison gang.

But Lira was not accused of actually doing anything tangible for the group. The key piece of evidence against him: a drawing found in his locker that allegedly contained gang symbols.

"My first two months it was hard to get used to the fact that I'm going to be here," Lira said. "I looked and thought?maybe in a month or two they'll realize that this is all a mistake and kick me out of here."

There was a way out of isolation, officials told Lira. He could debrief, or snitch, on other gang members. But as a judge later determined, Lira couldn't do that because he wasn't a member of any gang. He wasn't released from the SHU until his release from prison eight years later.

Lira eventually won a judgment in US District Court against the Department of Corrections, in part for psychological damage he suffered while locked in isolation. Prisoner right's attorney Charles Carbone has represented dozens of inmates locked in Pelican Bay's SHU.

"In Ernesto's case, I think it's very emblematic of the fact that people can be placed in solitary confinement for the littlest of reasons: for having a drawing, for having an address in an address book, without confirming or denying whether that address was used for furthering gang activity," Carbone said.

posted by rtha at 6:27 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is a fucking travesty and if we were a moral people we would have our own Bastille day.

Agreed; but since we're not Good and Moral but instead "sinners" by birth, why not watch some more TV and just relax, right?

We should all be ashamed about North American Prisons; I truly feel for people who are in prison and then end up being punished more; isn't the loss of personal freedom enough?
posted by NiteMayr at 7:21 AM on October 19, 2012


I would consider a sentence of 25 years in prison to be an almost unimaginably severe sanction

Even Stalin usually contented himself with "tenners". In The Gulag Archipelago, when 25 year sentences begin appearing, it suggests sadism grown into insanity.
posted by Egg Shen at 7:41 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Class warfare isn't just a metaphor. We have the world's largest prison system for a reason.
posted by facetious at 7:56 AM on October 19, 2012 [7 favorites]


I hadn't quite fathomed what an effective torture solitary confinement can be until I read Stefan Zweig's "The Royal Game". Zweig is very, very good at making you understand how utter isolation can lead to madness.
posted by Skeptic at 8:05 AM on October 19, 2012


This is a horrifying (and excellent) piece of journalism. What an outrage that this goes on in the 21st Century. The political element was the most telling - anything linking the inmate to political awareness sets them up for an indefinite period of solitary confinement. Barbaric
posted by Myeral at 8:10 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


U.S. to hand over emails about Bradley Manning’s detention

The Torture of Bradley Manning
posted by homunculus at 8:56 AM on October 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


I read this yesterday and, in all seriousness, consider America's criminal justice and incarceration system to be the single largest issue that needs fixing.

I see what you're saying. But, in huge issues like this one, like climate change, like the fact that we're running out of oil and not even thinking about it, like how we're killing brown people (let alone our own young people) all over the world and paying through the nose to do it...

NONE of these things can change until we fix. campaign. finance.

It may not be the biggest thing we've got to fix, but it's the first thing we've got to fix. Because nothing else will change until we stop letting the rich rule the roost.
posted by Trochanter at 9:04 AM on October 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


Fuckin' A homunculus. What the fuck is up with how we're treating that guy.
posted by Trochanter at 9:09 AM on October 19, 2012


I was reading this raptly yesterday- I knew prison conditions in the US were terrible and the rights prisoners have are severely and unfairly abrogated, but I was horrified to see how every small semblance of civilization has been stripped away from the lives of the people in solitary.

I'm starting to believe that prison reform might be one of the biggest social justice issues of our time; certainly it is one concerning a completely unserved population largely and disproportionally composed of some of the most vulnerable populations in our society.

Earlier this year I attended a conference held by the the Kempe Foundation for Prevention and Treatment of Child Neglect; in attendance were many, many therapists and mental health providers that deal with populations of sexually delinquent youth and adults, along with victims of abuse (and of course, there is significant overlap between the two groups). All the presentations I went to were extremely interesting, in terms of statistics and treatment models and new advances in neurological understandings of deviant behavior, and so on. But what I was really moved by during the conference was the obvious compassion that everyone had for their clients. Of course, therapists are literally trained to be compassionate.

But I think it’s no coincidence that of the many people I met who daily work with victims of abuse, they extend their compassion to the perpetrators they work with as well. What their therapists understand is that if your end goal is to truly reduce rates of abuse, to make our society safer, offenders must be dealt with humanely and not out of a sense of revenge, no matter how much their crimes might make us thirst for them to suffer in kind. Because many of them will eventually be released from their detentions, and wouldn’t it be better if in the meantime their issues had been addressed and treated?

Also, a few years ago, I worked with an organization in New Mexico called Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliations, a group composed of people who had lost someone close to them to homicide. Although at the time, New Mexico had a death penalty (it was repealed in March 2009, I like to think in part because of our efforts), the members of this group were all opposed to seeing the death penalty carried out in the case of the perpetrator. Some of them had been pro-death penalty beforehand, and changed their minds. Some of them had been anti-death penalty, but found that they desperately wanted to see the murderer receive the death penalty, until they realized they didn’t. And so on. But again, something they all said in one way or another was that they knew that society would not be improved by another death. And please don’t think I’m suggesting that anybody had “gotten over” their loss, or had forgiven the murderer. Maybe some of them had forgiven, I don’t know. I just know that at one meeting I went to, where everyone stood up and told their story, we were all racked with sobs ten minutes in. These were people dealing with a grief so indescribably raw that all I can do is try to understand, and hope I never truly have to. And yet to a person they all described their pain as something that punitive justice, like the death penalty, could do nothing to assuage.

In some cases, the murderer was a previously incarcerated recidivist. It’s tricky to go into the what ifs, but what if the murderer had spent time in a different kind of prison? What if the murderer had not been bounced around from juvie to the streets then back into jail? What if our prisons rehabilitated people instead of tortured them?
posted by Aubergine at 9:24 AM on October 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


I was disturbed to read about the 3 "signs" of gang membership - it felt a lot like "marks" of being witches. A witch-hunt based on imaginary "evidence", a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
posted by symbioid at 9:41 AM on October 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


I personally believe that prison should be as humane as possible, that there should be no death penalty, we need to focus on education and empowerment, and that the only people who should be a lifer are true sociopaths who have no chance of reform whatsoever.
posted by symbioid at 9:43 AM on October 19, 2012


The overwhelming message is that some people matter and some people do not.

I would name this as the key philosophical sickness infecting American/North American society -- one I don't see mirrored as matter-of-factly elsewhere (indeed, elsewhere I've heard reminder of the historical dangers of this kind of thinking).

You see it in education policy, health care, environmental policy, and certainly foreign policy, but it's never quite as starkly pronounced as it is in the criminal justice system.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:59 AM on October 19, 2012


Oh, and actually the thing that made me the most furious was being in the SHU for winning a legal judgement. It is a very clear step into utter evil.
posted by jaduncan at 10:02 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


And he hoped to be interrogated?

Drives home the extent of his desperation to me.
posted by morganannie at 10:12 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


im glad to see California get some deserved attention on its prison industry: 26 of the 1,056 in solitary confinement were not there for gang "association" or membership? and this is a kind, gentle, bleeding-heart blue state? someone mentioned the explanation upthread: campaign finance.

the California Correctional Peace Officers Association is one of the two most powerful political lobbys in the state (Teachers are the other). They buy political power, they use victims families narratives in tough-on-crime television propaganda, they draft sadist voter initiatives (your 3rd felony gets you 25yrs) to insure prisons remain overcrowded, violent and ...well-paying employers.
posted by dongolier at 10:55 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


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. He can't gather or present evidence in his defense. He can't call witnesses. Much of the evidence—anything provided by informants—is confidential and thus impossible to refute.

This is OK, I guess, but I liked it better the first time I read it, when it was called The Trial.

Wait, what do you mean it's real?
posted by infinitywaltz at 11:11 AM on October 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


CCA - Crime Pays!!!
posted by symbioid at 2:11 PM on October 19, 2012


digitalprimate: "Before I left the States, one of my sons parroted something from school about if you're in trouble or lost find a policeman."

Not a bad policy, if you're five.
posted by wierdo at 2:48 PM on October 19, 2012


Weirdo, I'd bet that really depends on both color and socioeconomic station.
posted by dejah420 at 6:20 PM on October 20, 2012


"No Way Out"–Freed Hiker Shane Bauer On Solitary Confinement From Iran to United States
posted by homunculus at 9:28 AM on October 22, 2012


Making Prisoners Count: For legislative districts, inmates are considered part of communities where they’ll likely never live as free citizens.
posted by homunculus at 12:53 PM on October 23, 2012


Four Horrifying Facts About Our Overcrowded Federal Prinsons
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:45 AM on October 27, 2012


AElfwine Evenstar: "This is a fucking travesty and if we were a moral people we would have our own Bastille day."

That's a light way of putting it.
posted by dunkadunc at 6:08 PM on October 28, 2012


And this may be as good an opportunity as any other to remember MeFi's Own Hoder.

Here's the appalling story of another Iranian blogger who was killed in the same prison Bauer was held in:

Iran accused of torturing blogger to death: Sattar Beheshti's family told of his death in prison a week after he was arrested for criticising Iran on Facebook
posted by homunculus at 2:04 PM on November 9, 2012


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