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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.

INFORMATION obtained from prisoners in solitary has long been viewed with suspicion. Numerous psychological studies have found that the more people are subject to sensory deprivation, the more suggestible they become. A 1961 US Air Force study titled "The Manipulation of Human Behavior" cast this as a plus, saying, "Solitary confinement and monotonous, barren surroundings play an important role in making the prisoner more receptive and susceptible to the influence of the interrogator." After the public disclosure of the CIA's 1983 "Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual," which taught agents how to extract confessions without leaving bruises, the agency renounced the use of "coercive interrogation techniques," including solitary confinement, in part because they yielded "unreliable results."

One judge ruled that inmates have "no constitutionally guaranteed immunity" from being falsely accused—that it's not illegal for authorities to lie to lock someone away in solitary. 

In California, much of the information used to validate prisoners comes from the 108 inmates who debrief every year, creating a revolving door where people get out of the SHU by putting others in. Pelican Bay gang investigator David Barneburg insists that all information is double-checked against information provided by other sources. But as long as this information is kept secret from everyone, including lawyers, that vetting is left up to investigators—and there's evidence that they are not immune to the temptation to make things up.

In 2006, a prisoner with a violence-free prison record named Ricky Gray was validated as a member of the Black Guerilla Family and given an indeterminate SHU sentence. But the warden at his prison, who Gray claims was sympathetic to his case, took an unusual step: He instructed a staff assistant to reinterview the informants who had given evidence against him. The assistant concluded that the entire validation package was "comprised of conjecture, second hand expression, assumptions, frivolous statements, incomplete documentation, and blatant lack of thorough investigation." Gray managed to obtain a copy of this confidential report, and his lawyer passed it to me, providing a rare glimpse of the type of evidence used in gang validations.

Several of the alleged informants, the assistant wrote, didn't know Gray at all. Two others—said to have reported that Gray was recruiting inmates to the BGF—signed sworn affidavits that they had never been interviewed about the subject and didn't know the guard who compiled their alleged statements. The paperwork that allegedly documented their statements didn't bear their signatures. In another of the interviews used against Gray, the staff assistant says the gang investigator appeared "to be leading" the informant "to answer questions the way he would like."

Like Bruce, Gray believes the gang investigator retaliated against him for his work as a jailhouse lawyer, a role in which he has been particularly successful—his biggest victory was an Eighth Amendment claim against prison guards that won him a $115,000 settlement from CDCR. Indeed, his legal work is specifically referenced in his validation. One piece of evidence pointedly stated that Gray's "use of correspondence for legal purposes is well documented."

The staff assistant's review recommended that Gray be classified as an "inactive" gang member and stated that Gray "does not have a problem following the rules once he is aware of them." But six years later, Gray remains in the SHU. The warden who ordered the review transferred to another prison 37 days after it was completed, and the gang investigator—the same man who presided over Gray's validation in the first place—chose not to change Gray's validation status in response to the investigation. When Gray took the matter to court, the judge ruled that "a prisoner has no constitutionally guaranteed immunity from being falsely or wrongfully accused of conduct which may result in the deprivation of a protected liberty interest." In other words, it is not illegal for prison authorities to lie in order to lock somebody away in solitary.

AT SOME POINT during the disorienting reentry blitz that followed my release in September of last year, I heard that in California, prisoners were doing what the three of us had done in Iran: hunger striking to protest isolation. Up to 12,000 inmates participated in protests against long-term SHU confinement across the state, making it probably the largest prison strike in recent history—twice the size of the one that took place a few months earlier. The prisoners were demanding changes to the gang validation policy and an end to long-term solitary.

Implicit in the two hunger strikes was a message: The use of prolonged solitary confinement was leading to the kind of unrest it was meant to tamp down. Nearly three weeks into the 2011 strike, CDCR promised to make changes to its gang validation policy. Since then, it has been hammering out a set of reforms, aimed primarily at turning the policy into a "behavior-based" one. This would bring California in line with other states that—at least on paper—segregate people only when they engage in violent or dangerous activity.

The new policy, which is already being rolled out on a pilot basis, will also include a "step down" program that would allow inmates to work their way out of the SHU over a four-year period, rather than wait six years before their case is even reviewed. After a year of abstaining from gang activity in the SHU, an inmate will be able to get one phone call per year, a deck of cards, and the ability to spend 11 more dollars at the canteen every month. After three years, he'll be allowed a chessboard, and his family will be able to send him two packages each year rather than one.

Department officials in Sacramento wouldn't talk to me about the new policy—after my visit to Pelican Bay, they declined further interviews, citing pending litigation. But when I talked to CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thornton about the reforms, she said, "I think you are going to see a lot of people classified as associates getting out of the SHU." Under the new policy, associates—unlike members—of prison gangs will only be put in the SHU if they commit a "serious" rule violation or two "administrative" rule violations.

The list of "disruptive organizations" runs to 1,500, including not only the Bloods and Crips, but also the Juggalos, the dedicated clown-faced following of the dual-platinum horrorcore hip-hop group Insane Clown Posse. 

Here's the catch, though: CDCR is vastly expanding what counts as rule violations. Under current regulations, "serious" violations are things like assaults, drug use, and escape attempts. But in the latest version of the reforms, the definition includes possession of "training material" for security threat groups (the new term for gangs), like the books listed earlier. Things that didn't previously count as a rule violation—such as making artwork depicting threat-group symbols, communication showing threat-group behavior, and anything that "depicts affiliation" with a threat group—will all be serious rule violations on par with stabbing somebody. "Administrative rule violations" will now include many new categories, such as possession of photos of validated threat-group affiliates.

Most critically, the new security threat group category doesn't just denote prison gangs, but also includes a much larger number of "disruptive groups." Among these are street gangs, motorcycle gangs, and "revolutionary groups." The list of disruptive organizations that CDCR gave me runs to 1,500, including not only the Bloods and Crips, but also the Juggalos, the dedicated clown-faced following of the dual-platinum horrorcore hip-hop group Insane Clown Posse. The Black Panthers are on the list, as are a couple of Nation of Islam-affiliated groups. One category is titled "Black-Non Specific," suggesting that any group with the word "black" in its name can be considered disruptive. (CDCR would not respond to my questions on this matter.)

Taken together, the policy changes could mean that a Crip taking part in a hunger strike, a Black Panther with a drawing he made of his organization's namesake cat, or an Insane Clown Posse fan with an album cover and a concert photo could receive indeterminate SHU terms.

ONE NIGHT, I stare at the pile of letters on my desk. I can't let it keep growing, so I take it over to the couch and read through them all. It's painful. A part of me relates to these people, but, like I wanted to tell Lieutenant Acosta when I stood in that cell, there are such huge differences too. They are criminals; I was a hostage. They are spending many years in solitary; I did four months.

But still, I can't escape the fact that their desperate words sound like the ones that ricocheted through my own head when I was inside. When I finish the stack of letters, I dig up the first correspondence I ever received from a prisoner. He has been out of the SHU for years, but through his florid prose, I hear the voice of someone who is still profoundly disturbed by the time he did there.

March 27, 2012

…Like you, I know what it is like to have our very existence internalized to the point of kissing Siren on the lips while she guided us to the rocks of insanity. Then, wondering if we'd ever escape her spell. Fortunately we both did. But as you will learn about you and me, we did not come out unscathed. At times…I mourn the solitude of days gone past. Days where time lost all meaning; to the point where I knew not if I was alive or dead; and where sometimes I did not care either way...

—Steve Castillo

After I read this, I go to the big wicker chest at the foot of our bed. In it are letters written to me by friends, family, and strangers that I never received because the Iranian censors would only let in mail from immediate family. There are hundreds of these; I keep them because I think I might read them some day. But not now. Instead, I grab a little piece of paper that is covered in microscopic writing, the script so small and the shorthand so esoteric that I can hardly read it, even though it was written by my own hand. It is the only piece of my prison journal—written on scraps of paper and hidden in the spines of books—that made it out.

The more one is utterly alone, the more the mind comes to reflect the cell; it becomes blank static…

Solitary confinement is not some sort of cathartic horror of blazing nerves and searing skin and heads smashing blindly into walls and screaming. Those moments come, but they are not the essence of solitary. They are events that penetrate the essence. They are stones tossed into an abyss. They are not the abyss itself…

Solitary confinement is a living death. Death because it is the removal of nearly everything that characterizes humanness, living because within it you are still you. The lights don't turn out as in real death. Time isn't erased as in sleep…

I carefully fold up the note, put it back in the chest, and step out onto our little second-story porch, into the breeze and the sun.

Contact the prisoners in this article.

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Additional reporting by Ryan Jacobs, Erika Eichelberger, and Robert Owen Brown. This story was supported by a grant from the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. Front page illustration by Tim O'Brien.

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