Shane Bauer

Shane Bauer

Reporter

Shane Bauer is a reporter in Mother Jones' San Francisco bureau, covering criminal justice, social justice, and human rights. His work has also appeared in the Guardian, The Nation, Salon, Slate, the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and many other publications. He is the co-author of A Sliver of Light, a memoir he wrote with his fellow hostages (one of whom is now his wife) about their two years as prisoners in Iran. Email him at sbauer (at) motherjones (dot) com.

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The American Correctional Association Ushered Me Out of Its Convention With Armed Guards

| Thu Aug. 21, 2014 12:54 PM EDT
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I've dealt with surly, armed prison guards in my reporting career, but Tuesday was the first time the encounter involved a PR man kicking me out of a convention I had personally requested to attend, paid for, and traveled across country to attend. On Tuesday, the director of government and public affairs of the American Correctional Association (ACA), a prison trade group, pulled me out of a seminar at their conference in Salt Lake City, which I'd been attending for several days. Flanking him were two men in Utah Department of Corrections uniforms, with pistols and tasers on their hips.

The convention is a twice-yearly affair, and I've been to it before. Hundreds of prison staff and members of the vast industry surrounding corrections touch down on an American city to discuss all things prison related. This week, Salt Lake City laid out the red carpet. Downtown restaurants posted signs welcoming the prison industry. Hotels printed the ACA insignia on their keys. Bars hosted parties sponsored by corrections companies. The local prison had inmates press an "ACA 2014" license plate for each convention guest.

The ACA is the largest and oldest correctional association in the world, and their conventions offer a rare glimpse into the world of US prisons. Vendors in the exhibit hall openly discuss their increasing sales of SWAT-style equipment to prisons. Visitors can check out the new tech like drone-detection devices, surveillance systems, and shank-proof e-cigarettes. People hold workshops on issues like sex between prison guards and inmates and the problem of drug-dealing staff. Serious topics like suicide among transgender inmate populations are often revealingly discussed in terms of liability and cost.

But in attending ACA conventions, I've also been surprised at how many reformists there are. When I attended an ACA convention in Tampa six months ago, the main plenary was composed of wardens and mental-health workers discussing the need to reform the use of long-term solitary confinement (called "restrictive housing" in ACA jargon). In Salt Lake City, prisoner mental health and the rampant problem of hepatitis C (affecting 40 percent of inmates) were major topics.

For someone who writes about prisons and is accustomed to being stonewalled at every turn, the ACA conventions have felt refreshingly transparent. After workshops or at company-sponsored meet-and-greets, most people are very willing to speak to a journalist, and I have always identified myself as such.

While in Salt Lake City, I was live-tweeting throughout the convention, posting revealing tidbits from workshops and notes on a visit to a local jail. This may have had something to do with why, on the fourth day, a man named Eric Schultz, the ACA's director of government and public affairs, came into a workshop and asked me to step outside. Standing at each side of him was an armed Utah correctional officer. He told me I was going to have to leave.

The guards ushered us into an empty room. The reason for my dismissal changed as Mr. Schultz and I talked. First, he told me I wasn't registered as media. I explained to him that when I called to register, I was told there were no media passes, and that I should register through the normal channels. He then told me the problem was that I wasn't displaying my Mother Jones credentials, which was required by policy (I still have not been able to find that policy). I told him that could easily be remedied. "It's nothing against you or Mother Jones," he said. "But you are just going to have to leave." The burly guard stepped in closer.

After I left the convention center, I called the main ACA office in Virginia to ask again whether media were allowed to attend the convention. The man who answered told me yes, they were.

"Any media?" I asked.

“Yes,” he said. My editor, Monika Bauerlein, called Eric Schultz several times to discuss the matter, leaving voicemails and receiving no return calls. I later called up Schultz to ask whether he wanted to comment for this post. He hasn't responded.

The ACA functions as the de facto oversight organization for our prison system. They set the professional standards and conduct audits. I've been told by many that their accreditation carries weight in court. What are we to infer when an institution whose purpose is to make sure our prisons are up to par doesn't allow the public to see what it's doing?

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What Did My Government Do When I Was Taken Hostage in Iran?

| Sat Jun. 7, 2014 11:26 AM EDT

Yesterday I filed a lawsuit against the FBI, the CIA, and the State Department. I intend to persuade the government to release records that will reveal how it dealt with the imprisonment of Sarah Shourd, Josh Fattal, and myself in Iran from 2009 to 2011. The three of us were arrested near the Iranian border while on a hike in Iraq's Kurdish region, which we were visiting on a short trip from Sarah's and my home in Damascus. Sarah remained in prison for 13 months, and Josh and I for twice as long. For the two years that I was in prison, I wondered constantly what my government was doing to help us. I still want to know.

But my interest in these records is more than personal. Innocent Americans get kidnapped, imprisoned, or held hostage in other countries from time to time. When that happens, our government must take it very seriously. These situations cannot be divorced from politics; they are often extremist reactions to our foreign policy. Currently, Americans are being detained in Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Cuba, and other countries.

What does our government do when civilians are held hostage? Sarah's, Josh's, and my family, like others in similar situations, were regularly assured by our leaders—all the way up to the Secretary of State and the President—that they were doing everything they could, but our families were rarely told what that meant. Why is this information so secret, even after the fact? It is important to know how the government deals with such crises. Is there a process by which the government decides whether or not to negotiate with another country or political group? How does it decide which citizens to negotiate for and which not to? Are the reassurances the government gives to grieving families genuine, or intended to appease them? Do branches of government cooperate with each other, or work in isolation?

Some will say disclosing such things only helps our enemies. This is a common defense of government secrecy. The CIA seems to be taking this approach with my request by invoking "national security" in its denial. This logic can be applied to almost anything related to foreign policy. If Congress had not publicly discussed the ins and outs of going to war with Syria, for example, it might by some stretch of the imagination have given our military an edge. But without having to defend their positions to the public, members of Congress might have come to a different conclusion and decided to go to war. Obstructing public discussion on how the government reacts to crises impedes democracy.

It has become commonplace for government agencies to do everything they can to muddle the transparency mandated by the law.

We are fortunate in this country to have the Freedom of Information Act, which allows citizens to access unclassified government records. The Act originated in 1955 during the Cold War, when there was a steep rise in government secrecy. It was strengthened after the Watergate scandal. But transparency has since eroded, to the point that federal agencies often don't abide by the terms of the FOIA without legal coercion. It's been almost a year since I first filed FOIA requests with the FBI and State Department for records about our case. I filed with the CIA six months ago. The law gives government agencies up to 30 business days to determine whether they will release records. So far, however, no records have turned up. I am not surprised by this. Without a lawsuit, I would not expect to receive anything for years, if at all.

Years can pass before the government gets around to releasing records in response to FOIA requests. Last year, for example, the State Department notified me that it was ready to release around 700 documents in response to a FOIA request I had filed four years prior. The request regarded an Iraqi sheikh who was receiving what amounted to bribes in the form of inflated construction contracts from the US military, a scheme I wrote about for Mother Jones in 2009. Despite the fact that the war is now over, and the records will be much less significant than they might have been at the time, I told State I would indeed like to see them. I am still waiting.

It has unfortunately become commonplace for government agencies to do everything they can to muddle the transparency mandated by the FOIA, to the point where only people trained to get around stonewalling have any chance of succeeding. Take my request to the FBI for records about our case. The Bureau responded to my initial request with its standard denial letter: "Based on the information you provided, we conducted a search of the Central Records System. We were unable to identify main file records." It's a standard response—I've received it before—but I was surprised to see it this time. The FBI visited my mom's home, spoke to my family repeatedly and they have no records?

In fact, the FBI letter is intentionally misleading. What they are saying is that they have failed to find a very particular type of records. As my attorney, Jeff Light, put it, the FBI "has main files on persons, event, publications, etc. that are of investigative interest to the Bureau. Imagine a file cabinet containing a series of folders. Each folder is titled with the name of a person, event, etc. When they are searching main files, they are searching the label on each folder. They are not searching any of the documents inside the folder.” In response, Light and I specifically named a long list of databases and records systems for the FBI to search. Nothing has turned up yet.

It is unfortunate that litigation has become a standard part of the FOIA process. It's also unfortunate that the government is not transparent with people entangled in political crises about what it is doing to help them. While I was in prison, my mother walked out of meetings with politicians, frustrated with their inaction. After Sarah came home, she also asked the government to tell her what it was doing, and got nothing. We asked again after I was released. I wish I didn't need to go to court to get an answer.