The Cruelest Punishment

“So when you’re in Iran and in solitary confinement,” asks Lt. Chris Acosta, my guide at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, “was it different?” His tone makes clear that he believes an Iranian prison to be a bad place…

Excerpts from Solitary confinement: The cruelest punishment 

By Shane Bauer | January 13, 2013


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?

Of course my experience was different from that of the men at Pelican Bay. How can you compare the two, 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?

“There was a window,” I say. “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. 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…


More than 80,000 people were in solitary confinement in the United States in 2005, the last time the federal government released such data. In California alone, at least 11,730 people are housed in some form of isolation.

Prisoners spend an average of 7.5 years in the Pelican Bay SHU, the only one for which the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has statistics. More than half of the 1,126 prisoners here have been in isolation for at least five years. Eighty-nine have been here for at least 20 years. One has been in solitary for 42 years.

The decision to put a man in solitary indefinitely is made at internal hearings that last, prisoners say, about 20 minutes. They are closed-door affairs. CDCR told me I couldn’t witness one. No one can. In California, an inmate facing the worst punishment our penal system has to offer short of death can’t even have a lawyer in the room. He can’t gather or present evidence in his defense. He can’t call witnesses. Much of the evidence — anything provided by informants — is confidential and thus impossible to refute. 

None of the gang-validation proceedings, from the initial investigation to the final sentencing, have any judicial oversight. “That is a system that has no place in a constitutional democracy,” says David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. He says California’s policy is “a form of guilt by association that is completely foreign to our legal system. Prison administrators have absolute power, and that is a recipe for abuse and violation of rights.”


“Solitary confinement is a living death. Death because it is the removal of nearly everything that characterizes humanness, living because within it you are still you. The lights don’t turn out as in real death. Time isn’t erased as in sleep…”


About WyldMoonChyld

Artist, activist.
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