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Photo: Roger May. (Source)

You’d think after 26 months in an Iranian prison, Shane Bauer would not be interested in seeing the inside of another cell. Think again. As I’ve noted before, Bauer is a journalist with human rights at the core of his stories.

Since his return to the U.S. he has been increasingly involved in describing the real problem we have with our approach to corrections. From Bauer’s Mother Jones feature piece:

I’ve been corresponding with at least 20 inmates in SHUs around California as part of an investigation into why and how people end up here. While at Pelican Bay, I’m not allowed to see or speak to any of them. Since 1996, California law has given prison authorities full control of which inmates journalists can interview. The only one I’m permitted to speak to is the same person the New York Times was allowed to interview months before. He is getting out of the SHU because he informed on other prisoners. In fact, this SHU pod—the only one I am allowed to see—is populated entirely by prison informants. I ask repeatedly why I’m not allowed to visit another pod or speak to other SHU inmates. Eventually, Acosta snaps: “You’re just not.”

Bauer excavates the policy and the logic, if you can call it that, used by the CDCR in their categorisation of prisoners and how those policies lands individuals in solitary. Pelican Bay State Prison, the oldest state-built Supermax, is Kafkaesque in its imprisonment of prisoners classified as gang affiliated. Bauer describes the *evidence* used by the CDCR in its case tying Dietrich Pennington to gang activity.

In Pennington’s file, the “direct link” is his possession of an article published in the San Francisco Bay View, an African American newspaper with a circulation of around 15,000. The paper is approved for distribution in California prisons, and Pennington’s right to receive it is protected under state law. In the op-ed style article he had in his cell, titled “Guards confiscate ‘revolutionary’ materials at Pelican Bay,” a validated member of the Black Guerilla Family prison gang complains about the seizure of literature and pictures from his cell and accuses the prison of pursuing “racist policy.” In Pennington’s validation documents, the gang investigator contends that, by naming the confiscated materials, the author “communicates to associates of the BGF…as to which material needs to be studied.” No one alleges that Pennington ever attempted to contact the author. It is enough that he possessed the article.

Getting out is a Catch-22 that is best described by Bauer than I.

For the longest time, there was a media blackout in California prisons and very few journalists got in to the SHU. I have heard from a few reporters and photographers this year who have visited Pelican Bay’s SHU but on a very tightly controlled media tour. Ultimately, Bauer wants to decode what purposes are served by solitary confinement. The CDCR argues it keeps prison violence down, but …

Prison violence fluctuates for myriad reasons, among them overcrowding, gang politics, and prison conditions. It’s impossible to say for certain what role SHUs play; what is clear is that in states that have reduced solitary confinement — Colorado, Maine, and Mississippi — violence has not increased. […] Since Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman released 75 percent of inmates from solitary in the mid-2000s, violence has dropped 50 percent. CDCR officials claim California is different because the gang problem is worse here, though they don’t have data to confirm this.

Bauer goes on to compare the correspondences he received as a prisoner with the letters he receives from Californian prisoners during his investigation. He describes the extreme psychological stress of solitary confinement and possibility of less labyrinthine regulation of SHUs with forthcoming CDCR policy changes (which may or may not transpire.)

He also offers readers to chance to contact the prisoners in the article.

Recommended read.

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UPDATED: Oct 23rd, 2012

See Shane Bauer’s two-part conversation with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now – one and two – and his support for California Hunger Strikers alongside Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal in Oakland, Oct, 2011.


Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Joshua Fattal are imprisoned in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. They are not spies; they are principled activists, valued journalists and now political pawns.

I’d like to summarise their situation and then focus on Bauer’s ongoing work in Sudan.


Earlier this week I met Shon Meckfessel, one-time Cake band-member, occasional anarchist, and long-time writer for literary, political periodicals.

Shon has been known most recently as the fourth member of the hiking party on the Iraqi Kurdistan/Iran border. Shon is not in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison because he – due to illness – delayed the start of his hike by 24 hours.

The day after his three friends Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Joshua Fattal had set out, Shon got on a bus headed to the same trail-head with the intention of catching up. While on the bus, he received a call from Shane telling him that the three of them had just been detained by Iranian border patrol. That was on the 31st July, 2009.

Most US mainstream media coverage has been neutral presentation of the known facts, sometimes peppered with confusion and incredulity. It has focused on the absurdity of the situation instead of the integrity of the writing, teaching and activism of the three members of the party.

Outside of the media, there has been organised support. There has also been the minority view – the predictably offensive right-wing nut-jobs.

To answer briefly the questions of how and why a party of Americans were hiking near the Iranian border, Iraqi Kurdistan has been peaceful for nearly twenty years since the close of the first Gulf war.

Shane, Sarah and Joshua were all seasoned travellers and they had been advised that the mountains and waterfalls of Ahmad Awah in the North East were well worth a visit. Shon and his friends travelled to As Sulaymaniyah together. When they took the two hour bus ride from the city they thought it headed northwest, not eastward. No locals they spoke to mentioned the proximity of the Iranian border.

Shon, Shane, Sarah and Joshua stayed in As Sulaymaniyah (bottom left) for a night. The bus ride they thought went north west in fact headed east to Ahmad Awah (top right).

As Sulaymaniyah and Ahmad Awah are in Kurdistan, North Eastern Iraq. The areas marked Kordestan and Kermanshah are in Iran.

Iraq and Iran border and territories.


For a long time – aside of an early factual statement (August 6th) – Shon stayed out of the media spotlight and let the Department of State run its diplomatic channels. However, his friends remain imprisoned. Recently, media coverage of the story has declined (Diane Sawyer’s direct questions to a prevaricating Ahmadinejad the exception). On November 2nd, Shon wrote an open letter to Iranian President Ahmadinejad:

I had hoped that the misunderstanding would be resolved quickly. Three months have now passed, and I cannot imagine what more the Iranian authorities might have to learn about my friends or what they were doing in the area. … Mr. President, by continuing to deprive Shane, Sarah, and Josh of their liberty, Iran is working against some of the very causes it supports. Each of these three has a long and public record of contesting injustice in the world and addressing some of the inequities between rich and poor which you have spoken about through their humanitarian work in their own country and overseas.

Shon goes on to describe their various work and causes. Read the letter in full. Also on November 2nd, Shon appeared on Democracy Now! to reassert his position that the Iranian authorities can have no illusions as to their characters.

On November 9th, the three were charged with espionage.

Of the three, Shane Bauer has written and published the most. Most recently his article, Sheikh Down (Mother Jones) described how the ‘Pentagon bought stability in Iraq by funneling billions of taxpayer dollars to the country’s next generation of strongmen’.

Shon notes, “As a fluent speaker of Arabic, Shane has focused on injustices in the Arab world, in Iraq and Palestine in particular. The Christian Science Monitor published Shane’s January 7th interview with Musa Abu Marzook, the only English-language interview with a Hamas leader during Israel’s attack on Gaza.”


I could have as easily featured the publicly available works of Josh or Sarah; each of the three illustrate their non-spy credentials through their past writings and journalism. That said, neither Josh or Sarah are involved in photojournalism or multimedia journalism as Shane is.

As Shane’s AP editor said in the clip atop this post, there are not many twenty somethings in Darfur freelancing and living with Sudanese rebels.

I have picked out five images from Shane’s Darfur series, but he also has produced two multimedia pieces One Day with the S.L.A. and Darfur: Rebellion from the Margins. In both stills and video he is trying to offer a context for the rebels bearing arms. The equation is simple: without a fight they would have “been run into the desert, where there is no water and left to die”.

Rebels from the SLA-Unity faction sit stranded in the countryside. North Darfur, 2007. © Shane Bauer

In the heat of the summer, SLA rebels swim near their base after a long night of rain. Deisa, North Darfur, Sudan, 2007. © Shane Bauer

A UN helicopter takes off after delivering medical supplies to a small clinic that was looted by the Janjaweed. Many Darfuris are demanding a UN peacekeeping force to replace the beleagured African Union mission, but for now the UN is limited short stopovers to deliver small boxes of supplies to villagers. Bir Maza, 2007. © Shane Bauer

Village elders meet in North Darfur. Many civilians remain in the countryside, either because they cannot afford to travel to a refugee camp or because they refuse to leave their homes, 2007. © Shane Bauer

Women collect water in goatskins at a well in Farawia, North Darfur. With no water facilities and many wells poisoned or destroyed by the Sudanese government and its janjaweed militias, people have to travel long distances to find water. 2006. © Shane Bauer

The stills and video are a privileged view of existence for the Sudanese Liberation Army and the civilians they protect, but it is also a view that has dated. Shane continues to work on a feature length film about these same civilians, the S.L.A. and their continued struggle. Time ticks on.

Given that Shane is an accomplished photographer, I was a little surprised that his cause hasn’t been forwarded much in photographic circles, or more specifically the photoblogosphere. Jack Kurtz picked up on the story and posted it to Lightstalkers but it got no takers. Shane is a member.

Tewfic liked Shane’s Darfur multimedia but missed the story of his and his friends capture … as many of us did.

And, of course, we only anticipate Shane’s release in the context of all three’s release.


Perhaps, especially when the photographic community are mobilising to help in Haiti, we should also be aware of ongoing problems elsewhere?

The family have set up the Free The Hikers website, and also Facebook and a Twitter. We can start there with our actions.


Shane Bauer received 1st place for independent audio slideshow features in the 2008 NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism contest. In 2007, he was a national finalist for photojournalism in the Harry Chapin Media Awards as well as a national finalist for feature photography for the Society of Professional Journalists’ 2007 Mark of Excellence Awards. He also received the Lyon Prize in photography that year. (Source)

Sarah Shourd, 31, is an English teacher in Damascus and is learning Arabic. She previously taught as part of the Iraqi Student Project, a program which gives Iraqi students living in Damascus the skills to continue their education in US schools. Sarah has written articles on travel and social issues reflecting her time in Syria, Ethiopia, Yemen and Mexico (Escape From Iraq: A Muslim Family Finds Solace in Ramadan, Brave Eyes, Laughing Hearts: My First Encounter with Yemen, Families Shout Their Love Across Minefields in Golan Heights). She attended UC Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lived after graduating until moving to Damascus with Shane. (Source)

Joshua Fattal began undergraduate work at UC Santa Barbara and graduated from UC Berkeley (2004). For three years after college he was invested in the Aprovecho Research Center, a sustainable living project in Oregon. In 2009, Josh was on a years travel partly independently and partly as a teaching assistant for the International Honours Program ‘Health and Community’ semester. (Source)


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