Interview with Sarah Shourd

Surviving Prison in Iran... Now Fighting Solitary Confinement in the USA

August 4, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper |


Sarah Shourd is a writer and advocate against the use of solitary confinement. In 2009 Sarah, along with her two friends, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, were hiking near the Iraq-Iran border when they were arrested by the Iranian military. All three were charged with espionage and imprisoned in Evin, Iran's notorious dungeon prison. Sarah was held in solitary confinement for 13 ½ months. Sarah was released on bail in September 2010. Her friends were released in September 2011. Since her release Sarah has worked to expose solitary confinement as torture and fought to end its use in U.S. prisons. She has been a supporter of the California Prisoners Hunger Strike, using her own experience of solitary to help lay bare the inhuman cruelty the prisoners are fighting against.

The following is a transcript of an interview with Sarah Shroud on the Michael Slate radio show on KPFK, which aired on Friday, July 12, 2013:

Michael Slate: Can you tell people a little bit about your situation? When you were arrested in Iran, you pretty much immediately went into solitary. And you spent almost fourteen months in solitary. Now, a lot of people talk about that as the ultimate in dehumanization, and you've written very powerfully about that. Can you tell people what your experience in solitary was?

Sarah Shourd: Yes, of course. Immediately after my now-husband Shane Bauer and my friend Josh Fattal and I were captured while hiking on the northern Iraqi side of the Iraq-Iran border, we were driven to Tehran and torn apart and thrown into solitary cells. And that's when the most horrific and difficult months, and actually it ended up being over a year of my life, began. Without any human contact in your life, you go numb. Your paranoid thoughts and fears almost completely take over, and my time in solitary was a day-to-day struggle in order to keep my mind and my sanity intact. And it went on for 410 days. When I was eventually released, it was very difficult to be around people, because when you haven't been around people for so long, you feel very uncomfortable in crowds. You have a hard time making eye contact. Being touched feels really uncomfortable. It was a long time until I felt normal again.

Slate: That struck me in something that you wrote. It was very powerful when you said, exactly that point, is that people always think that—and you even think for a while yourself when you're in a situation like that, that once you're out, you will be healed. But the scars of this—and I think it's very important that people recognize this, because this point about the ultimate in dehumanization, and what goes on with this. I've had a number of people on the show, psychologists, psychiatrists, who have talked about fundamentally, when people are in solitary, it doesn't take a very long time for actual mental illness to set in. And that's something that actually has to be taken very seriously in relation to all this.

Shourd: Yeah, definitely. This practice has been rising precipitously in our country for decades, at an even higher rate than the prison population. And as you know the prison population is completely out of control. But it wasn't until recently when the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, stated unequivocally that prolonged solitary confinement—any period over fifteen days—can cause lasting and permanent damage, and is torture, that there is really no going back. The prison hunger strike followed Juan Mendez's statements, and here we are in our third widespread hunger strike, and it's just really clear that prisoners in this country are refusing to be ignored, and are refusing to endure this torture.

Slate: When you mention Juan Mendez and the Special UN Rapporteur on Torture, you also spoke about, look, you yourself looking into the UN Convention Against Torture, and you mentioned that while in fact, it's true what Mendez is saying about his view of this being torture, that actually the UN Convention Against Torture doesn't accept the idea that solitary confinement is torture, right?

Shourd: Well, the acting body—the U.S. is a signatory of the Convention Against Torture. And the acting body that presides over the Convention Against Torture, the Committee Against Torture, has stated that prolonged solitary confinement is torture and should be abolished. So the UN, I think, has made their stance actually very clear on the issue.

Slate: But then the U.S. doesn't accept that, do they?

Shourd: No, the U.S. does. The U.S. is a signatory of the Convention Against Torture. The problem is, the U.S. denies that the single housing unit or the SHU, what they call "administrative segregation," is solitary confinement. That denial has actually no basis.

In the same report, Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur Against Torture stated that any period of over 22 to 23 hours a day alone in a cell constitutes solitary confinement, and those are exactly the conditions that even a conservative estimate says up to 80,000 people in our country are enduring in our prisons every day.

Slate: Now, Sarah, one of the things I wanted to ask you about in relation to this thing of torture. It was very heavy I thought. You described this as sort of being buried alive, which I thought was one of these things that just comes out and just smacks you in the head. I thought it was very a powerful thing. Can you explain or dig into that a little more, being buried alive?

Shourd: Well, a lot of people, a lot of other survivors such as myself, have made many attempts to describe what solitary confinement is like, and it's a difficult thing to describe, because it's not anything that any human being should have to endure, and most people haven't obviously experienced it. So, we've all experienced loneliness. I think if you multiply that by—I don't know by what degree, but if you can kind of tap into that feeling of being cut off from the world, and just really make it as large and deep as an ocean, then maybe you can get a taste of what it's like. But, when I was in solitary confinement, I mean, just physically, the effects on your mental and physical health are very blatant. I had extreme insomnia, paranoia. I spent a lot of my time just crouched at the slot near the bottom of my cell door, listening for any kind of sounds. I fell into deep depression, and I had panic attacks where I screamed and actually beat at the walls until my knuckles were bloody.

And this is really only a fraction of the horrible things that you hear about people during prolonged solitary confinement. Some of them are too horrifying to really even mention. People cut themselves, self-mutilation is rampant. Actually, the only segments of our population that cuts themselves in large numbers are teenage girls and men in solitary confinement. And it's simply because the pain and the anguish need to come out. Prisoners in solitary start fights with guards for the sole purpose of having some kind of human interaction. And of course that leads to infractions and leads to them being kept in solitary even longer, in many cases indefinitely.

Another thing worth mentioning is that the suicide rate is much higher in solitary confinement. Psychiatrist Terry Kupers has come to the conclusion that approximately fifty percent of prison suicides nationwide happen in solitary confinement, and that means that prisoners in solitary are nineteen times more likely to commit suicide than those in the general population.

Slate: You talked about—there was something that struck me in some of your writings on this. You talked about some of the ways you were able to just hold onto anything, and you talked about the fact that there was a window in your cell that you could actually watch the passing of the light, and keep count of time, or even it seemed to me some vague connection to—that there is something outside of the cell. And I kept thinking about that, because we're always told about how, well, if you end up in prison in another country you're in big trouble, 'cause it's not the soft stuff you got here. It's remarkable that anybody could even say that, but they do, and it's actually the thing that's put out there. And yet, I kept thinking about in Iran, you had this window, and I'm not upholding the Iranian government or the Iranian prisons or anything else. They're brutal. I lost a lot of friends in fact in the prison you were in. I lost a lot of friends that were executed back in the early 1980s for their political activity. But at the same time, you had this window. And you think about—I kept thinking about Pelican Bay, and the fact that there is nothing. There's not a shred of anything you have there that you can possibly have some connection to outside of your cell. That's a very heavy comparison, I think.

Shourd: Oh, yeah. That's exactly right, Michael. Imagining enduring those 410 days without the window is just absolutely horrifying for me. When you have nothing, everything you have feels like the difference between losing your mind or maintaining some level of sanity. And, really, imagining being in a cell without any kind of window—and my window was high up at the ceiling of my cell where I couldn't reach it and couldn't actually look out it. It also had bars over it and a perforated sheet of metal, so really, all I had from the outside world were dots of light or dots of blue sky. But I felt the breeze sometime. I heard noises from the outside. I heard birds. I knew when the sun was rising and setting. And I could also chart the passage of time on the wall and that was extremely important to me. Not having that really is being buried alive. It's being entombed in a box.

Slate: Very much so. Horrifying. One of the things that you talk about, too, and I thought this was really, it was kind of jolting in a sense because, again, when you talk about this comparison between the two, when you came out of prison in Iran and you got back here and you started to see—can you tell people about your discovery? You started to see what exactly was happening in the prisons in the U.S., and one, how did that come about for you? And then two, what was the impact on you when you compared and contrasted this thing of, OK, I just came out of this horrifying situation in Iran, and now I look at what's going on in the prisons here, wow!

Shourd: Well, Michael, I knew that solitary confinement was a cruel practice. I knew that it was wrong. But it wasn't until I experienced it myself that I knew that it was torture. And when I came back to this country—I was released before my husband Shane Bauer and my friend Josh Fattal, and I spent the first year fighting non-stop for their freedom. But I also had a few spare moments to start to look into the practice of solitary confinement in our own country and I was absolutely shocked that we have more people in solitary than any country in the world. I mean, as far as the numbers, and the amount of time that people are kept in solitary, I mean the average, I think in the Pelican Bay SHU is seven and a half years. In that amount of time a person can go crazy dozens of times. And I have no idea how a person's psyche is completely reshaped and damaged during that period. There's just no comparison between what we are doing and what most countries in the world are doing.

One example is England tried solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure. And in England they have a system of review. They have a body that keeps track of the statistics and the data coming out of their prisons and shares it with the public. And it was very, very clear in a relatively short period of time that violence in prisons went up and the people were not reformed and rehabilitated. And they've practically done away with the whole practice in England, because it became clear that it was expensive and it didn't work.

We don't have that in our prisons. We don't have a kind of body, an impartial body to review and keep track of what's happening. And that's why things have gotten so completely out of control.

Slate: Now, Sarah, one of the things that you did, you became very active in exposing what solitary confinement means. You've been involved in doing support for the prison hunger strike. One of the things you've also started working on, and I found this very interesting and I wanted you to talk a little bit about it, you started working on a play that's centered on solitary confinement. Can you talk about what led you to that, and give people a sense of what that play is?

Shourd: Yeah. Well, the play's called Opening the Box, and I'm partnering with Solitary Watch. I now work for Solitary Watch as a contributing editor, and it's going to be real stories of people living in solitary confinement, a whole spectrum of people. We hope to represent a woman, a juvenile, a lifer, people who've been in for months and others that have been in for decades. And I really believe that hearing and seeing real, complex stories of people living through this hell has the potential of affecting people in a way that they can't and won't forget. Our play is, I think, going to reveal a lot, not just about the horror of solitary confinement, because that obviously is very important, but also about the resilience of the human spirit. It's absolutely amazing that people are able to endure this kind of torture and that so many people continue to live, even without the tiniest shred of hope. They find ways to make the best of a situation that is very, very little to work with. So the play's going to be about survival and resilience. We hope that it's a catalyst for action. And it's our humble effort to contribute to a nationwide movement against solitary confinement as well, and getting stronger and stronger by the day. It's also a very deeply personal journey for me as you can imagine. It's an attempt for me to understand what happened to me, and connect my own experience to what I see happening around my own country.

Slate: What do you think about the significance of the strike that began last year, is being taken up now. What do you think of the remounting of the strike after the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation basically refusing to do anything but the minor, even though it is important when people get these small things, but not responding at all or doing anything at all, in fact, in relation to the bigger questions, the bigger demands of the prisoners. What do you think of the significance of this strike, both in terms of the anti-solitary confinement movement, but also in society at large?

Shourd: Well, I think the strike is historic. It's the third large-scale hunger strike in two years. And there's promise that it's going to be the largest yet. Their demands are to end indefinite solitary confinement, and also to end the debriefing process which gives these prisoners the choice between snitching on other prisoners, on giving names and information about other prisoners that are reported to be gang members, which risks their lives. Or their other choice is to be in solitary confinement and only to have the possibility of a review every four years. So these demands have been stated loud and clear, and so far the response from the California Department of Corrections is to deny the prisoners that are hunger striking phone calls and to search their cells.

The world is watching and I wanted to share briefly—a prisoner at Pelican Bay sent me a message, actually to my mom who corresponds with him on a regular basis, and he said that since the last hunger strike, the CDCR has put up a pull-up bar in Pod 10 in the yard, and has given them some access to an additional electronic appliance and also given them bowls. And he said, "I'm happy about the bowls because eating cereal out of a milk carton kind of sucks. It seems like they're trying real hard to keep their SHU program alive though. But no matter how many bells and whistles they attach to it, the systematic isolation, with the intent and purpose of breaking that person is still a form of torture. It's kind of crazy when you put it all in perspective. Do they really think a bowl and a pull-up bar makes it constitutional?"

Slate: Very heavy. Now that leads into my last question, Sarah. We're both familiar with this quote. I was telling my wife this morning, wow, Sarah got this quote too, Dostoevsky's comment about the degree of civilization in society can be judged by entering its prisons. Talk about that a little bit.

Shourd: I see solitary confinement as really the deep end of our very broken prison system. It's the worst punishment that our system doles out, but it's by no means—it's really only the deep end of a whole system that needs to be reformed. That said, I think that solitary confinement is a strategic place to start, because the practice is used in the U.S. and countries all around the world as a way to control prisoners, you know, to pacify them, intimidate them and to break them. And it's used in lieu of giving them access to education, mental health and other services that promote and enable rehabilitation. Solitary confinement has been proven completely ineffective as a method of rehabilitation, and for that reason, many countries have stopped using it. But in our country, like I said, it's completely out of control, and we've become the largest offender. And the only way to reform our system is to start in the deep end and to end the practice of solitary confinement.

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.