California prison

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.

 

IT'S BEEN SEVEN MONTHS since I've been inside a prison cell. Now I'm back, sort of. The experience is eerily like my dreams, where I am a prisoner in another man's cell. Like the cell I go back to in my sleep, this one is built for solitary confinement. I'm taking intermittent, heaving breaths, like I can't get enough air. This still happens to me from time to time, especially in tight spaces. At a little over 11 by 7 feet, this cell is smaller than any I've ever inhabited. You can't pace in it.

Like in my dreams, I case the space for the means of staying sane. Is there a TV to watch, a book to read, a round object to toss? The pathetic artifacts of this inmate's life remind me of objects that were once everything to me: a stack of books, a handmade chessboard, a few scattered pieces of artwork taped to the concrete, a family photo, large manila envelopes full of letters. I know that these things are his world.

"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?

I want to answer his question—of course my experience was different from those of the men at California's Pelican Bay State Prison—but I'm not sure how to do it. How do you compare, when the difference between one person's stability and another's insanity is found in tiny details? Do I point out that I had a mattress, and they have thin pieces of foam; that the concrete open-air cell I exercised in was twice the size of the "dog run" at Pelican Bay, which is about 16 by 25 feet; that I got 15 minutes of phone calls in 26 months, and they get none; that I couldn't write letters, but they can; that we could only talk to nearby prisoners in secret, but they can shout to each other without being punished; that unlike where I was imprisoned, whoever lives here has to shit at the front of his cell, in view of the guards?

"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.

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.

Here, there are no windows.

 

Protests Grow in Solidarity With California Prisoners As Hunger Strikes Enter Third Week, Democracy Now! July 15, 2011

INTERVIEWS BELOW

Thousands of inmates in at least 13 prisons across California’s troubled prison system have been on hunger strike for almost two weeks. Many are protesting in solidarity with inmates held in Pelican Bay State Prison, California’s first super-maximum security prison, over what prisoners say are cruel and unusual conditions in "Secure Housing Units." We play an audio statement from one of the Pelican Bay prisoners and speak to three guests: Dorsey Nunn, co-founder of "All of Us or None" and executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and one of the mediators between the prisoners on hunger strike and the California Department of Corrections; Molly Porzig, a member of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition and a spokesperson for Critical Resistance; and Desiree Lozoya, the niece of an inmate participating in the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike, who visited him last weekend.

Molly Porzig, a member of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition and a spokesperson for Critical Resistance.
Dorsey Nunn, co-founder of "All of Us or None." He is also the executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. Nunn was incarcerated from 1971 to 1982 in San Quentin Prison in California. He is one of the mediators between the prisoners on hunger strike and the California Department of Corrections.
Desiree Lozoya, is the niece of an inmate participating in the Pelican Bay hunger strike.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to California, where thousands of inmates in at least 11 prisons across the state’s troubled prison system have been on hunger strike for almost two weeks. Many are protesting in solidarity with inmates held in Pelican Bay State Prison, California’s first super-maximum security prison.

The hunger strike began on July 1st in the Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit, when inmates began refusing meals to protest what they say is cruel and unusual conditions. Prisoners in the units are kept in total isolation for 22-and-a-half hours a day, a punishment some mental health experts say can lead to insanity and is tantamount to torture.

Democracy Now! obtained a recording of an audio statement that one of the Pelican Bay inmates, Ted Ashker sic, made to his legal team in the secure prison’s Secure Housing Unit, which is referred to as the SHU. You will need to listen closely as he explains his reasons for joining the hunger strike.

TODD ASHKER: The basis for this protest has come about after over 25 years—some of us, 30, some up to 40 years—of being subjected to these conditions the last 21 years in Pelican Bay SHU, where every single day you have staff and administrators who feel it’s their job to punish the worst of the worst, as they’ve put out propaganda for the last 21 years that we are the worst of the worst. And most of us have never been found guilty of ever committing an illegal gang-related act. But we’re in SHU because of a label. And all of our 602 appeals, numerous court challenges, have gotten nowhere. Therefore, our backs are up against the wall.