Shane Bauer, former Iranian hostage, investigates Pelican Bay’s solitary confinement practices


Shane Bauer spent 26 months in an Iranian prison after he and two friends were detained while on a hiking trip near the Iraq/Iran border. Up against espionage charges, among other “confidential” accusations, Bauer’s time in the U.S. headlines came and went while he sat in a cell not knowing when – or if – he would come home.

Now, just seven months after his release, Bauer has written a fascinating peek inside the American prison system, published by Mother Jones. In the multi-part magazine piece, Bauer visits California’s Pelican Bay prison and tries to find out the major differences between how solitary confinement is employed in Iran and in the land of the free. Hint: the similarities are, well, uncomfortable.

Here are a few of the most glaring realizations:

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.


When I ask him how well that’s worked, he stutters and says diffidently, “I think there’s been less violence.”

He’s wrong. The rate of violent incidents in California prisons is nearly 20 percent higher than when Pelican Bay opened in 1989.


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.

Read Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons. in its entirety.


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1 Response to Shane Bauer, former Iranian hostage, investigates Pelican Bay’s solitary confinement practices

  1. Like Shane Bauer, I was imprisoned in Iran as a foreigner accused of espionage – – and I have been to prisons in the US when working there as a lawyer. NO, the (prison) systems in both countries are not the same. Just ask yourself if an article like this could appear in Iran. The American penal system is rotten in many places, but comparing it to a system that tortures and kills political opponents in its prisons is not helpful for the required debate.

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