The December 2012 cover story of Mother Jones Magazine is by former Iranian hostage Shane Bauer, one of the three American hikers imprisoned in Iran for more than two years. A journalist, Bauer had to reboot his career after the trauma of his his imprisonment. He was looking for a project and decided he wanted to investigate California prisons and their use of solitary confinement.
But, unlike most reporters, Bauer knew a thing or two about solitary. Here’s a big clip from the beginning of the story:
“…So when you’re in Iran and in solitary confinement,” asks my guide, Lieutenant Chris Acosta, “was it different?” His tone makes clear that he believes an Iranian prison to be a bad place.
He’s right about that. 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.”
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?
“There was a window,” I say. I don’t quite know how to tell him what I mean by that answer. “Just having that light come in, seeing the light move across the cell, seeing what time of day it was—” Without those 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.
Here, there are no windows.
The rest of Bauer’s report, which was supported by the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, is a deeply disheartening account of solitary confinement policies, particularly California’s, which are crying out for additional investigation.
Bauer reports, in particular, about the allegedly often whimsical process by which one gets “validated” for association to a prison gang thus qualifying one for the SHU.
This “validation” protocol, which can profoundly affect an inmates life in prison, is seemingly devoid of anything resembling what we know as due process. In fact it’s “validation” that was one of the key issues that triggered last year’s hunger strikes.
None of the gang validation proceedings, from the initial investigation to the final sentencing, have any judicial oversight. They are all internal. Other than the inmate, there is only one person present—the gang investigator—and he serves as judge, jury, and prosecutor. After the hearing, the investigator will send his validation package to Sacramento for approval. The chances of it being refused are vanishingly small: The department’s own data shows that of the 6,300 validations submitted since 2009, only 25 have been rejected—0.4 percent. “It’s pretty much a rubber stamping,” ]Former San Quentin Warden Daniel] Vasquez says.
“That is a system that has no place in a constitutional democracy,” says David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. He says California’s policy is “a form of guilt by association that is completely foreign to our legal system. Prison administrators have absolute power, and that is a recipe for abuse and violation of rights.”
There’s lots more, including Bauer’s diary from he was in solitary, so read on.
(Bauer also had an Op Ed in the LA Times that ran on Thursday, so read that too.)
CA’S PRISON GANGS, SOLITARY, AND THE “CESSATION OF HOSTILITIES”
Certainly, California’s prison gangs have wreaked a dark havoc inside our state lock-ups, and do great damage on the streets as well. But an increasing number of credible voices and organizations are saying that this does that give us the right to inflict what those who have experienced it—like Bauer, or Senator John McCain—unequivocally agree is torture.
And while we’re on the subject of prison gangs, in mid August, a group of inmates in Pelican Bay’s SHU known as the “Short Corridor Collective” signed an Agreement to end Hostilities between racial groups—in other words, between the prison gangs and the racially grouped inmates they are able to control. (The text of the agreement is here.) Among the signers are some fairly high up members of most of the main prison gangs, some of whom also were the organizers of last year’s widespread prison hunger strikes.
The actual end to hostilities were to have ended was last week, on Oct. 10. While we haven’t written about the agreement until now, we’ve been tracking the matter with interest, and we’ll report back when we have a better idea of how it is playing out.
Thus far a week-long hunger strike kicked off on the day of the “Cessation.” The hunger strike stopped on Thursday, yesterday, as abruptly as it began.
The San Francisco Bay View is one of the best places to watch for updates.
NEW YORK’S SECOND CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS RULED THAT DOMA VIOLATES EQUAL PROTECTION AND IS UNCONSTITUTIONAL
On Thursday, a 3-judge panel of New York’s 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. Next stop the U.S. Supreme Court.
The lawsuit that precipitated the ruling was brought by 83-year-old Edie Windsor, whose partner of 44 years, Thea Spyer, died from multiple sclerosis in 2009…
WitnessLA posted about Edie’s case here.
Timothy Williams at the NY Times has more on Thursday’s ruling
A federal appeals court in Manhattan ruled on Thursday that the federal statute defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman unlawfully discriminates against same-sex married couples by denying them equal federal benefits.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is the second federal appeals court to reject a central portion of the federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act, following the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Boston, which handed down its ruling in May.
But this decision on Thursday is the first time that an appeals court has subjected the law to a relatively tough test for constitutionality that, in effect, elevates issues of sexual orientation to the constitutional level of cases involving sexual discrimination.
The Supreme Court may take up the issue as soon as the current term.
Two of the three judges on the Manhattan court ruled in favor of Edith Windsor, an 83-year-old woman whose case challenged the 1996 statute, saying it violated the Constitution’s equal-protection clause because it recognizes the marriages of heterosexual couples but not those of same-sex couples, even though New York State law makes no such distinction.