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?
Protests Grow in Solidarity With California Prisoners As Hunger Strikes Enter Third Week, Democracy Now! July 15, 2011
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.
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.
Support Prisoner Hunger Strike and Five Core Human Rights Demands
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