Sadhbh Walshe writes: Sarah Shourd still has nightmares about the 13 months she spent in solitary confinement in Iran. “It reduces you to an animal-like state,” she tells me. Shourd recalled the hours she spent crouched down at the food slot of her cell door, listening for any sign of life. Or pounding on the walls until her knuckles bled. Or covering her ears to drown out the screams – the screams she could no longer distinguish as her own – until she felt the hands of a prison guard on her face, trying to calm her.
Shourd was captured by the Iranian government in 2009, along with her now husband Shane Bauer and their friend Josh Fattal, when they accidentally crossed over the border during a long vacation hike. The three have just released a book called A Sliver of Light about their subsequent incarceration. Shourd spent less time in Evin prison than Bauer and Fattal, but she was held in solitary confinement for her entire stay. Her devastating account of how this isolation almost caused her to unravel will, no doubt, shock many American readers. They should be even more shocked, however, to know that there are tens of thousands of prisoners held in isolation in American prisons every day – and the conditions to which they’re subjected are not much better than Shourd’s in Iran.
Indeed, ‘the hole’ in the US is sometimes even worse than the worst public horror stories.
Scientific studies have shown that it can take less than two days in solitary confinement for brainwaves to shift towards delirium or stupor (pdf). For this reason, the United Nations has called on all countries to ban solitary confinement – except in exceptional circumstances, and even then to impose a limit of no longer than 15 days so that any permanent psychological damage can be averted. Shourd spent a total of 410 days in solitary and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after her release. She still has trouble sleeping. But since returning home, she has spent much of her time trying to draw attention to the plight of more than 80,000 Americans who are held in isolation on any given day, some of whom do not count their stay in days or months, but in years and even decades. [Continue reading…]