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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.

HOW DOES someone get out of the SHU, then? Officially, there are two ways. One is to be declared an "inactive" gang member or associate, which doesn't happen very often. Just a few dozen inmates are released to the general population every year via that process—less than 1 percent of those serving indeterminate SHU terms. The earliest chance of being classified as "inactive" is six years from the latest evidenced gang activity. Then, if a gang investigator provides a single piece of new evidence—say a book found in the cell or a tidbit from a confidential informant—the inmate has to wait six more years.

When Paul Bocanegra got out of solitary, he says it felt "like you're free."  James WestWhen Paul Bocanegra got out of solitary, he says it felt "like you're free." Photo by James West.The other way out is to debrief—to divulge everything an inmate knows about a gang, including names of members and associates. This he can do at any time. An average of 108 do it every year, even though among prisoners snitching can carry the death penalty.

And what if a prisoner in the SHU doesn't know anything? As former Pelican Bay Warden McGrath testified in court three years ago, anyone mistakenly validated "cannot debrief," because they have nothing to give. Catch-22.

In Pelican Bay's Transitional Programming Unit—the place where inmates go once they've been released from the SHU—I sit at a metal table with Paul Bocanegra, a burly, tattooed former prison gang member. He spent 12 years in isolation before he debriefed. Now, he is housed among other debriefers and will probably never go back to the general population. Assault or murder, he says, is "usually what happens once you turn your back on your buddies—people you used to run with. That's always in the back of your head. What's gonna happen if one day I get out, you know?"

CDCR claims that indeterminate SHU sentences are not meant to be punitive but are simply intended to isolate dangerous prisoners. That's also the argument the department uses to refute challenges like the class action lawsuit under way by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of Pelican Bay prisoners who have spent between 10 and 28 years in solitary. The suit claims that prolonged SHU confinement is cruel and unusual punishment.

I place a stack of 18 postcards in front of me and write on each of them a question that has been on my mind since I left Pelican Bay: "Do you think prolonged SHU confinement is torture?" I send them to prisoners across the state and 14 write back, all with the same answer: "yes."

Is it not? In the SHU, no work, drug treatment programs, or religious services are permitted. SHU prisoners are not allowed phone calls (except in approved emergencies) or contact visits. Clocks, photo albums, food condiments containing sugar (like ketchup), playing cards, and chessboards are all banned. Only after a nearly three-week-long hunger strike last year were SHU inmates allowed calendars, as well as handballs to use in the concrete dog run. Their monthly canteen draw is a quarter of the regular population's allowance, as is the one 30-pound package they can receive per year. Pelican Bay Warden Greg Lewis insists this, too, isn't to punish them, but to provide "a very safe environment."

When I ask Bocanegra if the SHU is punishment, he laughs. "It's meant to break a person," he says. "You have to accept whether you want to die back there or you want to change." Leaving the SHU for a unit where he can exit his cell without cuffs and go to an outdoor exercise yard with a small group of other people, he says, made him "feel like you're free." When he walked out of the SHU, he saw his first tree in 12 years.

EVERY DAY, I come home to a new stack of letters from prisoners—our hostage story, it seems, is best known inside America's penitentiaries. For a while, I try to respond to each one, but as the weeks and months pass, they start to pile up. I become afraid of them and all the sorrow they contain. They take me back to my own time in solitary—and how can I go back there every day?

One morning, I sit down at my desk and look at the stack of envelopes slowly taking it over. I need to write these people back. I know what it's like to wait for word from the outside. Some of them remind me of myself while I was locked up, their whole lives bent on staying sane. They write. They read. They exercise. They meditate. Others make me think of what I would have eventually become. Their letters don't make sense. They write me constantly, desperately. They are broken.

Instead of digging into the pile, I place a stack of 18 postcards in front of me and write on each of them a question that has been on my mind since I left Pelican Bay: "Do you think prolonged SHU confinement is torture?" I send them to prisoners across the state and 14 write back, all with the same answer: "yes." One tells me he has developed a condition in which he bites down on his back teeth so hard he has loosened them. They write: "I am filled with the sensation of drowning each and every day." "I was housed next door to…guys who have eaten and drank their own body waste and who have thrown their own body waste in the cells that I and others were housed in. I cry."

There are plenty of studies about the psychosis-like symptoms that result from prolonged solitary. Indicators of what psychiatrist Stuart Grassian calls "SHU syndrome" include confusion and hallucination, overwhelming anxiety, the emergence of primitive aggressive fantasies, persecutory ideation, and sudden violent outbursts.

Officials say solitary is needed to isolate gang leaders. But very few of the thousands in segregation are classified as gang members, let alone leaders.

As I read the medical literature, I remember the violent fantasies that sometimes seized my mind so fully that not even meditation—with which I luckily had a modicum of experience before I was jailed—would chase them away. Was the uncontrollable banging on my cell door, the pounding of my fists into my mattress, just a common symptom of isolation? I wonder what happens when someone with a history of violence is seized by such uncontrollable rage. A 2003 study of inmates at the Pelican Bay SHU by University of California-Santa Cruz psychology professor Craig Haney found that 88 percent of the SHU population experiences irrational anger, nearly 30 times more than the US population at large.

Haney says there hasn't been a single study of involuntary solitary confinement that didn't show negative psychiatric symptoms after 10 days. He found that a full 41 percent of SHU inmates reported hallucinations. Twenty-seven percent have suicidal thoughts. CDCR's own data shows that, from 2007 to 2010, inmates in isolation killed themselves at eight times the rate of the general prison population.

In the SHU, people diagnosed with mental illnesses like depression—which afflicts, according to Haney, 77 percent of SHU inmates—only see a psychologist once every 30 days. Anyone whose mental illness qualifies as "serious" (the criterion for which is "possible breaks with reality," according to Pelican Bay's chief of mental health, Dr. Tim McCarthy) must be removed from the SHU. When they are, they get sent to a special psychiatric unit—where they are locked up in solitary. Some 364 prisoners are there today.

Is long-term SHU confinement torture? The ACLU says yes. Physicians for Human Rights agree. The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law and several other prisoner rights groups recently filed a petition with the United Nations claiming just that. Human Rights Watch says at the very least, it constitutes cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, which is prohibited by international law.

Prisoners in Pelican Bay's Housing Unit are allowed into the "dog run," a.k.a. exercise yard, alone, for an hour each day.Prisoners in Pelican Bay's Housing Unit are allowed into the "dog run," a.k.a. exercise yard, alone, for an hour each day. Photo by Shane Bauer.UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak once sent a letter to Tehran to appeal on behalf of my fellow hostage, and now wife, Sarah Shourd. Though Josh and I were celled together after four months, Sarah remained in isolation, seeing us for only an hour a day. Late last year, Nowak's successor, Juan Mendez, came out with a report in which he called for an international prohibition on solitary confinement of more than 15 days. He defined solitary as any regime where a person is held in isolation for at least 22 hours a day. Anything more "constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, depending on the circumstances." When I called Mendez to ask about the SHU, he said, "I don't think any argument, including gang membership, can justify a very long-term measure that is inflicting pain and suffering that is prohibited by the Convention Against Torture."

CDCR, like correctional departments around the country, does not consider the SHU solitary confinement. Inmates have TV, and they have contact with staff when they bring them their food, officials told me. Our interrogators in Iran said the same thing.

JOSH AND I used to make up stories about other prisoners who walked past our cell, blindfolded, on their way to the bathroom. In our imaginations, the man who looked to be in his mid-30s with a smooth head and a slim build was the lead singer in an alternative rock band. His anguish was fueled by the fact that the government deemed his music subversive, when all he wanted was to play his guitar. The grizzled old man was a playwright. The guy with the long beard was an imam. The clean-cut twentysomething was an internet hacker.

Lately, it's like I've been doing the opposite—shaping living, breathing people out of snatches of information. Vincent Bruce has written me more than 20 times, and I've read through hundreds of pages of his court and prison files. From this, I can tell you that the 50-year-old has spent nine and a half years in isolation—seven of them alone in the SHU—but I can't tell you whether it shows in his stride like I could with the guys who walked past my cell. I can tell you that when he was 26, he busted out of jail in Chicago, that The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is one of his favorite books, and that he loves Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight."

I can tell you that he is one of California's most effective jailhouse lawyers. This is how his days pass: At six o'clock every morning, he wakes up, washes his face, and scrubs the floor of his cell. He does half an hour of yoga and meditation. From noon until dinnertime, he sits hunched over on his bed and pores over whatever legal case he is working on. Sometimes he gets diverted and watches court shows. It's one of his weaknesses.

When Bruce was a kid, he says, his mom had nervous breakdowns when she would turn into a zombie that he had to feed and bathe. Her boyfriend's solution was to "slap her out of it." At 13 or 14 he started running with the Crips. Since then, he has spent a total of about one year on the outside. At 23, he was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder, two counts of attempted murder, and two counts of first-degree robbery, and sentenced to life without parole.

The UN says more than 15 days in solitary is "torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment." At Pelican Bay, 89 men have been in the hole 20 years or more.

Several years into his incarceration, he started to organize other prisoners. In the 1990s at Salinas Valley State Prison, he crossed the intense racial divide of prison and organized 74 black, white, and Latino prisoners to pressure the administration into providing family visitation, religious services, and better food.

In 1998, Bruce was put in administrative segregation for allegedly assaulting another inmate. Ad-seg, as it is commonly known, is a solitary unit in each prison where inmates are often placed for disciplinary infractions. Some 6,700 California prisoners are in such units.

Bruce's ad-seg term was supposed to last 90 days. While there, he started pushing for improvements—allowing ad-seg inmates access to the exercise yard, reading and writing materials, the law library, and adequate bedding and clothing. Shortly afterward, he was told he wouldn't be getting out of isolation: He was under investigation for gang affiliation. (His time in the Crips, which he says ended years ago, was irrelevant here—indeterminate SHU terms are only given for connections with prison gangs.)

This had happened before, but investigators had determined the evidence "insufficient." This time—using the same evidence—Bruce was validated and transferred to the Pelican Bay SHU. He denies ever affiliating with a prison gang.

Bruce would later write in a legal complaint that the gang investigator told him the goal was to "make an example out of him" because he was acting as a "spokesperson for other prisoners' grievances." It would be nearly three years before he had direct contact with another human being.

In 1999, Bruce sued the department of corrections, claiming he had been put in the hole for being a jailhouse lawyer. Thanks to his legal pestering, the court eventually appointed him an attorney. The case dragged on for seven years. Meanwhile, he was released from the SHU as an "inactive" gang associate and transferred to another prison, where he continued his advocacy, winning at least 25 concessions over a period of six years, including wheelchair-accessible tables for the yard. At one point he initiated a hunger strike that involved 120 inmates. Two days later, he was put in ad-seg for "conspiracy to assault staff." The claim was based on confidential information that the person in charge of reviewing ad-seg assignments later found did not exist; it couldn't be found anywhere in his file. He spent a year in isolation.

About a year after Bruce was released from ad-seg, CDCR agreed to a settlement in his retaliation suit, paying him $7,500 and guaranteeing him adequate due process in the future. Ten days later, two assistant gang investigators came to Bruce's cell and confiscated his legal materials, a violation of California law. That same day, he was placed in ad-seg for possession of a shiv. Prison officials later acknowledged that the weapon didn't belong to him, but the charge was never dropped, and he was sent to the SHU to serve a 10-month sentence.

The gang investigator meant to keep him there. In yet another gang validation package, he claimed Bruce's retaliation case against CDCR in itself constituted "gang activity." In January 2008, he was validated as an associate of the BGF and his SHU sentence was extended indefinitely. The evidence against him was confidential. He has been in the SHU ever since.

Six months after his indefinite SHU term began, he received a letter from a young man he'd been celled with a few years before. "Although I tried my best not to let you know I was listening to you," the other prisoner wrote, "my ears was always open when you spoke. Vincent you have made me a wise young man, and did something for me I will never forget." Now, he wrote, "The gang banging life is over with."

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