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Society & Culture

On Solitary Confinement: “I played reruns of my life in my head”

June 29, 2015
Nargess Tavassolian
8 min read
Sarah Shourd
Sarah Shourd
American hikers Shane Bauer (left), Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd
American hikers Shane Bauer (left), Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd
Poster for Opening the Box, Sarah Shourd's play about solitary confinement
Poster for Opening the Box, Sarah Shourd's play about solitary confinement

In March, a group of political and civil activists going by the name “Activists against Solitary Confinement” wrote to President Hassan Rouhani, urging him to use his constitutional power as Iran’s president to stop the illegal practice of keeping prisoners in solitary confinement. In Iran, prison authorities regularly use solitary confinement against political prisoners and prisoners of conscience.

Among the activists taking part in the protest were were Narges Mohammadi (now in prison), Hadi Esmaeilzadeh, Mohammad Tavassoli, Mahmoud Dordkeshan, Majid Dori, Farideh Gheyrat, Fakhrosadat Mohtashamipour, Ahmad Montazeri (the son of Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri), Reyhaneh Tabatabaei, Ghoncheh Ghavami , Shima Ghooshe and Mohammad Hossein Rafiee (also currently in prison, as of June 16).

“Solitary confinement has been called ‘white torture’ by psychologists and psychiatrists,” they said in their letter to Rouhani. “The post-traumatic-stress of solitary confinement can remain with the prisoner for a long time even after his release from prison. Many times, an accused [person] is forced to confess while he is kept in solitary confinement.”  

Keeping prisoners in solitary confinement is not only against Iran’s obligations under international human rights law, but — as the activists pointed out to Rouhani — is also against Iran’s own laws.

According to Iranian law, solitary confinement is only allowed under two conditions. This first is to prevent conspiracy between a person accused of a certain crime and another, when there is a reasonable fear of conspiracy between the two individuals. Even in these cases, authorities can only keep the prisoner apart from the other person accused of the same crime or thought to be in conspiracy with the prisoner. But in reality, prisoners are kept apart from all other prisoners, not only the ones with which they are suspected to be in collusion. They are also deprived from any link to the outside world, including radio, television, newspapers, books, pen and paper.

The other situation where solitary confinement would be allowed is when a prisoner commits a disciplinary offence (going against the rules of the prison), and the Disciplinary Council confirms that the prisoner has committed such an offence. In that case, the prisoner can only be kept in solitary confinement for up to 20 days. Any other use of solitary confinement is illegal and against the law.

I talked to Sarah Shourd, an ex-prisoner who was held in a solitary cell for 410 days. In July 2009, Iranian security forces arrested Shourd, a US citizen, along with two other Americans, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal. They were arrested  for allegedly crossing the border while hiking in the mountains between Iran and Iraq and were kept for months at Iran’s notorious Evin prison, charged with espionage.


In your opinion, what are the effects of solitary confinement?

I definitely think that solitary confinement can force people to confess. I think that it breaks down people’s will to resist and keeps them in a status of perpetual anxiety and fear, which also becomes doubting themselves; it  puts them under so much psychological pressure.


You were kept in solitary confinement for 410 days. How did you cope?

A lot of what I did was to try to escape in my mind. I used to call them re-runs — you know when you are watching television and they show the whole episode [over and over]. I called it something like watching the re-run of my life. So, I spent a lot of time trying to remember every detail of my life and playing it over and over again, because that would be the only moment in which I could find any kind of peace or any kind of tranquility and freedom. I also would try very hard to reach out to the other women; we passed notes to each other secretly and clandestinely; we would sing songs to each other. For a long time I was in a cell next to a woman and the two of us would make music together through the wall by knocking on the wall. We would make certain rhythms and learn the rhythms, we would teach each other different rhythms and composed music together by playing this game of knocking. So, any kind of contact with people, even if it was not physical contact, would help me a lot with my anxiety and fears. In my worst times, I really just couldn’t do any of those things. Sometimes, I was angry and I screamed and I beat at the wall. Sometimes I just cried myself into exhaustion and couldn’t get out of bed and eat for days and days.


You are not a Persian speaker. Was that a barrier for you in your communication with other prisoners?

Well, all the women around me knew English. I think it is the most educated women who end up in the political ward at Evin prison.


Can you recall your worst memory from that time?

My interrogation lasted for two months. Throughout the entire period, my interrogator led me to believe that I wouldn’t be convicted of espionage, that there was no evidence against me, and the judge would find me innocent, and I would go home. And then one day he revealed that he had been lying about that, and that my case was political and I could be in prison for years. It was possible that I would never get out and that was the most impossible moment for me. It was so shocking and so terrifying that I couldn’t really absorb it. I just went back to my cell and felt like I was dying, that I would never see my family again, that I would never be free. I am glad that at that moment I did not have anything to hurt myself, because I think at that time I was really in danger of committing suicide.


What about your best moment? I read in the news that you got engaged while in the prison. Was that your best moment? Could you tell us a bit about that?

Oh yes, that was a good one! Thanks for not letting me forget that. I know that a lot of people thought that our engagement was very romantic and touching and it was. But as much as it gave me so much hope and made me feel so wonderful in that moment, it was followed the next moment by so much fear and uncertainty about whether or when our marriage would actually take place. In a way, the expectation and the desire to be together was just as much a part of my torture as it was a part of my survival. To be so close to Shane, but never be able to see him, hardly be able to touch him, with all the guards watching us, to be blindfolded together...  It was really horrible.

As for my best memory, I think one of my best memories was when I was finally taken to the women’s clinic at Evin. At that time, I had no interaction with other women (female prisoners). I hadn’t seen Shane and Josh for months. I kept complaining about my medical problems for many months. I was finally taken to the clinic, and when I was there, it was just amazing to see all the other women, who smiled at me. They tried to talk to me and were curious about me. I was isolated even in the clinic, but one woman actually pushed back the guard and hugged me. It was very amazing for me because I did not know if the other women suspected me or believed their government’s false claims against me, but it was an incredible experience to know that the other women around me cared about me.


Did you at any time think of confessing to what your interrogator said you had done?

Well, I never thought of confessing to espionage because they never actually told me that I was charged with espionage. It was the day that I was released that they charged me with espionage. I did at time think that it was a good idea to confess to crossing the border, because I thought that maybe that would give them an excuse to let me say that I was sorry. But whenever I had the chance to talk to my fiancé and my friend about it, they really thought that it was a terrible idea to confess to something that we had no idea about. The border was unmarked and we had no idea what the punishment would be if we did confess to crossing the border. And maybe we did cross the border — we would never know for sure — but the fact that the border was unmarked shows that obviously it wasn’t intentional. We did not know where the border was, so we were, in my opinion, blameless. We learned later from our lawyer, Masoud Shafii, that the punishment for unintentional crossing of the border is a fine. It is not even imprisonment. So, if I knew that the punishment would have only been a fine, I think I would have probably confessed. But I just didn’t know what the consequences would be at that time. I was tempted at the time because of the pressure and because of my fear, but I never actually did it.


Do you think the Iranian government was using you as a political bargaining chip to release Iranian prisoners in the US?

It is not just what I think, it is clearly known. It is a historical fact at this point that the Iranian government intended to use us for leverage on both the nuclear negotiations and for a prisoner exchange. The Iranian government wanted to get some kind of concessions.


As a last question, can I ask what are you doing these days?

I am working as a journalist. I focus on the problems of mass incarceration and imprisonment in the US. I do a lot of writing and I just recently wrote a play about solitary confinement.


Related article:

Torture Today: Lashings, Solitary Confinement and Forced Confessions


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