Subscribe to The Atlantic and get 2 free issues

How We Survived Two Years of Hell As Hostages in Tehran

Three Americans recount their experience of being held captive in Iran's Evin Prison after unknowingly crossing the Iraq-Iran border while out on a hike. An excerpt from A Sliver of Light, a co-written book about their ordeal:

SHANE (October 2009)

Solitary confinement is the slow erasure of who you thought you were. You think you are still you, but you have no real way of knowing. How can you know if you have no one to reflect you back to yourself? Would I know if I was going crazy? The longer I am alone, the more my mind slows. All I want to do is to forget about everything.

But I can't do it. I am unable to keep my mind from being sharply focused on one task: forcing myself not to look at the wall behind me. I know that eventually, a tiny sliver of sunlight will spill in through the grated window and place a quarter-size dot on the wall. It's ridiculous that I'm thinking about it this early. I've been awake only 10 minutes and I should know it will be hours before it appears.

They take everything from us—breezes, eye contact, human touch, the feeling of warm wet hands from washing a sink-load of dishes, the miracle of transforming thoughts into words on paper. They leave only the pause—those moments of waiting at bus stops, of cigarette breaks. They make time the object of our hatred.

I try not to look for the light.

PUBLISHED: March 12, 2014
LENGTH: 43 minutes (10825 words)

Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America's Prisons

The writer, a former American prisoner in Iran, goes inside America's prisons and examines the solitary confinement system. He discovers "a recipe for abuse and violation rights":

"As I read the medical literature, I remember the violent fantasies that sometimes seized my mind so fully that not even meditation—with which I luckily had a modicum of experience before I was jailed—would chase them away. Was the uncontrollable banging on my cell door, the pounding of my fists into my mattress, just a common symptom of isolation? I wonder what happens when someone with a history of violence is seized by such uncontrollable rage. A 2003 study of inmates at the Pelican Bay SHU by University of California-Santa Cruz psychology professor Craig Haney found that 88 percent of the SHU population experiences irrational anger, nearly 30 times more than the US population at large.

"Haney says there hasn't been a single study of involuntary solitary confinement that didn't show negative psychiatric symptoms after 10 days. He found that a full 41 percent of SHU inmates reported hallucinations. Twenty-seven percent have suicidal thoughts. CDCR's own data shows that, from 2007 to 2010, inmates in isolation killed themselves at eight times the rate of the general prison population.

"In the SHU, people diagnosed with mental illnesses like depression—which afflicts, according to Haney, 77 percent of SHU inmates—only see a psychologist once every 30 days. Anyone whose mental illness qualifies as 'serious' (the criterion for which is 'possible breaks with reality,' according to Pelican Bay's chief of mental health, Dr. Tim McCarthy) must be removed from the SHU. When they are, they get sent to a special psychiatric unit—where they are locked up in solitary. Some 364 prisoners are there today."
PUBLISHED: Oct. 18, 2012
LENGTH: 34 minutes (8518 words)

A Mountain of Trouble

As we hiked into the Zagros Mountains, which rise to nearly 12,000 feet along the border between Iraq and Iran, the driver grew nervous. "We're going to have lunch in Tehran," he said with a tense laugh. He had reason for his gallows humor: Six months earlier, three Americans—Shane Bauer, 27; his girlfriend, Sarah Shourd, 31; and Josh Fattal, 27, Bauer's former housemate from the University of California at Berkeley—had walked along this same trail, with disastrous results. The hikers had—accidentally, it seems—strayed across the unmarked border into Iran, been seized by border guards, accused of being U.S. spies, and transported to the notorious Evin Prison, in Tehran, where they remained as this story went to press, in March.
SOURCE:Outside
PUBLISHED: April 21, 2010
LENGTH: 20 minutes (5174 words)