Sitting in a nearly empty cell – a metal sink, the blank stare of the white walls, fluorescent lights that never turn off – all you have are your own thoughts. Sometimes they race through your head like freight trains; other times a thought can get stuck in a loop, tormenting you for days or weeks at a time, grating the inside of your skull like metal on flesh. Your days are restless, your eyes constantly wandering around your cell and you never, ever stop asking yourself – when am I going to get out?
Before I spent 410 days in solitary confinement, I knew that isolating a person was a cruel form of punishment. Still, it was not until I experienced it myself that I realized it was torture. On July 31st, 2009, my now-husband Shane Bauer, friend Josh Fattal and I were captured by Iranian soldiers while hiking behind a tourist site in Northern Iraq. I was on a break from my teaching job in Damascus, Syria where Shane and I lived – our friend Josh was visiting from the states – so we decided to travel to the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, a part of the Middle East with a burgeoning tourist industry where the mountains are unusually green and no American has been killed or kidnapped in recent decades.
I spent the majority of the next 13 ½ months in isolated lock-down. The guards and interrogators told me solitary confinement was for my own safety – that there were no ‘appropriate' cellmates for me – but I was never safe from my own mind. The ACLU interviewed me for the following podcast about a year and a half after my release. At the time, I was still in the deepest throes of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
I described the psychological and behavioral effects I experienced like this:
After just two months my mind began to slip. I would spend large portions of my day crouched down on all fours by a small slot in my cell door listening for any sounds that might distract me from the terror of my isolation. I suffered from insomnia, nightmares, hallucinations and emotional detachment. I often had violent panic attacks. More than once I completely lost control and began screaming and beating at the walls of my cell until my knuckles bled. I started to realize that there was a slow disintegration of my personality, my sense of who I was…You are existing in this kind of vacuum.
I am acutely aware of the fact that, though many things about my story are unusual, the one thing that is not exceptional is the form of psychological torture I was forced to endure. Right now, prisoners in California are staging the largest prisoner hunger strike in the state's history to protest solitary confinement and other conditions they say amount to torture. Solitary confinement has been rising precipitously in U.S. prisons for decades – at an even higher rate than our prison population as a whole. Psychiatrist Terry Kuper estimates that approximately 50% of prison suicides nation-wide happen in solitary confinement. That means that prisoners in solitary are 19 times more likely to commit suicide than those in the general population. Instead of trying to deal with the serious issues that come out of our broken prison system constructively, in the U.S. we lock tens of thousands of people alone in cages hoping they will disappear. Still, they cannot keep them locked up forever. The majority of people in prison will one day be released back into society, where little to no services exist to help them recover, reintegrate and move forward in a positive way. That's why so many ex-prisoners reoffend…and the cycle continues.
With nearly 30,000 prisoners on hunger strike in California last week and 80,000 prisoners who remain in solitary confinement nationwide, the time is now to end this practice in our country. Everyone who is angry about this massive and widespread torture in our prisons needs to do their part. I am partnering with Solitary Watch to write and produce a play, called Opening the Box, using real stories from a diverse pool of people in solitary confinement in the United States today. The stories will represent a spectrum of people – immigrants, children, lifers and women. Some will have lived in solitary for a quarter of a century, others a few months or weeks. You can watch our video here.
I believe a play can reach a new and different segment of the population and has the potential of humanizing this issue in a visceral way that an article or report cannot. This is not only about entertainment, of course, we want our play to be a catalyst for action and a humble contribution to a nation-wide movement – one that has gained more momentum in the last few years than it did over the last century. ‘Opening the Box' is also a deeply personal journey – an attempt to understand what happened to me during the year I spent in solitary and to connect my own suffering to that of so many others.
Click here to learn more about "Opening the Box."