Mother Jones is a publication to which I am proud to subscribe for its commitment to “smart, fearless journalism.” Its November/December 2012 issue features an important investigative report by Shane Bauer, one of the American hikers who was arrested and imprisoned in Iran in 2009. In the report, Bauer describes the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) program that assigns prisoners who are deemed to be threat to the general prison population to one of five Security Housing Units (SHU) in the state.
SHUs in California, according to Bauer, “hold nearly 4,000 people in long-term isolation,” many of whom are subject to an “indeterminate sentence.” This can mean lengthy stays in solitary confinement, with little real hope of being released. In the Pelican Bay prison’s SHU, for example, “[m]ore than half of the 1,126 prisoners…have been in isolation for at least five years.”
The length and indeterminate nature of these sentences are not the most appaling aspect of the system Bauer exposes in his report. What is most shocking is how some of these prisoners wind up in solitary confinement in the first place. If the state collects three pieces of evidence that can be used to “validate” a prisoner as a member of a gang, this is sufficient to send the prisoner to a SHU, where he can be placed in isolation indefinitely.
Many of the types of evidence that officials can use to “validate” a prisoner as a gang member are flimsy at best. These include, among other things, possession of “black literature,” drawings depicting Aztec symbols, or writings in the Nahuatl language of central Mexico. Sometimes these materials are collected and used against prisoners to whom prison guards and officials have taken a dislike, merely as a way of removing those prisoners from the population.
According to the report, there are only two ways for a prisoner to be released from a SHU. Either a prisoner can be “declared an ‘inactive’ gang member or associate,” or the prisoner can “debrief,” which means to tell authorities everything he knows about the gang with which he has been associated. The first option is rarely successful, and the second carries the high risk of the prisoner getting himself killed once he returns to the general population. The other alternative? Wait it out in solitary confinement, which, as Bauer points out, can lead to extreme mental and physical illness and distress in those who are subjected to it for any length of time.
I have done my best to not let my personal feelings about Shane Bauer cloud my judgment of his report. I had little sympathy for him and his two friends at the time of their arrest. Frankly, they should have known better than to select, of all places, an area near the border of Iran, a country known for its hostility and volatile treatment toward the United States and Americans, as the location for their hiking trip. My opinion on that matter has not changed that much over time, and I was not comfortable with his repeated references to himself as a “former hostage.” Not that I doubt that his suffering was real and acute. But it was his choice to place himself in a position where there was a real risk of being arrested and arbitrarily held by a regime that has been shown to hold international human rights standards in little regard.
That said, I do believe that the time Bauer spent in solitary confinement in an Iranian prison more than qualifies him to research and write a scathing report on the damaging solitary confinement assignment program in the California prison system. Frankly, this program sounds to me as if it raises serious constitutional concerns, especially regarding the First and Eighth Amendments. I admit, however, that I am not familiar enough with the case law in this area to know for sure. In any event, this is an important report, and those who believe in fair and just treatment for prisoners would be well-served to read it.