Across the US more than 80,000 people are being held in solitary confinement today, 12,000 across California alone. In my cover story for Mother Jones—my first major story since my release from Iranian custody in September 2011—I investigate a widespread, yet barely known practice of putting people in solitary indefinitely.
In reporting on this story, I step inside prison for the first time since my own incarceration. I visited Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit, or SHU, where 89 people have been in isolation for over 20 years. One has been in solitary for a full 42 years.
They don’t have indefinite sentences in the SHU for the reasons you might think. Inmates actually get relatively short SHU sentences for killing someone. Many of the SHU’s indefinite residents haven’t even broken prison rules. They are there because the California Department of Corrections claims they are connected, however tenuously, to prison gangs.
But as I found reviewing hundreds of pages of prison files and court records, the “evidence” against many of them is shockingly thin. Evidences include everything from the possession of Machiavelli’s The Prince to pictures of former Black Panthers to using common Spanish words like tio and hermano.
The process of deciding who gets put in the hole for decades has no judicial oversight. The decisions are made in closed-door hearings where a single prison staffer acts as judge, jury, and prosecutor. Inmates are not allowed to call witnesses, gather evidence in their defense, or even have a lawyer present. Any evidence provided by informants is kept confidential and is thus impossible to refute.
Read my op-ed in the LA Times on the subject here.
Watch my interview on Democracy Now!.