You’re Just Not: Solitary Confinement Is Torture, In Iran and Pelican Bay

Shane Bauer, one of three U.S. hikers imprisoned on vague espionage charges in Iran, visitsCalifornia’s infamous Pelican Bay State Prison for an in-depth, horrifying look at solitary confinement in its Security Housing Unit (SHU), where inmates land when charged with gang affiliation for “offenses” like possessing Christmas cards with stars, drawings of dragons, and left-wing or prisoners’ rights reading matter. Bauer‘s four months in solitary were the worst part of his experience – so much so, “I needed human contact so badly that I woke every morning hoping to be interrogated.” The U.N. defines more than 15 minutes in solitary as torture and cruel or unusual punishment; 89 inmates have been in the SHU for over 20 years. From Mother Jones.

Bauer on the difference between his Iran cell and Pelican Bay’s SHU: “There was a window…Without those windows, I wouldn’t have had the sound of ravens, the rare breezes, or the drops of rain that I let wash over my face some nights. My world would have been utterly restricted to my concrete box, to watching the miniature ocean waves I made by sloshing water back and forth in a bottle; to marveling at ants; to calculating the mean, median, and mode of the tick marks on the wall; to talking to myself without realizing it. For hours, days, I fixated on the patch of sunlight cast against my wall through those barred and grated windows. When, after five weeks, my knees buckled and I fell to the ground utterly broken, sobbing and rocking to the beat of my heart, it was the patch of sunlight that brought me back. Its slow creeping against the wall reminded me that the world did in fact turn and that time was something other than the stagnant pool my life was draining into.”

Finding Mumia Abu-Jamal


Written by Noelle Hanrahan 

In the winter of 1992, I was looking for a voice from America’s death row. My search took me to lock down units on the largest death rows in the country: California, Texas, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. I was seeking a perspective that would illuminate the harrowing places where men and women wait to be ritually killed at the hands of the government. This voice would bring into focus and breathe life into numbing words and dry statistics – capital punishment, gas chamber, solitary confinement, corrections, and mass incarceration.

Here I was, a young reporter, trying in the best tradition of investigative journalism to cover the story. I was asking a simple question: what does this all mean? Prisons in the United States are an epic story. Mass incarceration and the jailing of one in forty-six people during their lifetime (one in three for Black men) is culturally defining. As a broadcast journalist I needed a voice on the ground, someone who had lived this experience. I needed someone to share with the audience what it means for a country to never quite let go of its slavery.*

Clearly, racism was driving U.S. carceral policies; by the early 90s slavery was back.

Could a country incarcerate the most people per capita on the planet, employ the death penalty with ferocity, and incarcerate a generation of young black men, without experiencing devastating economic and spiritual consequences? Prisons verses preschools is not a slogan: it is a choice.   


By bringing Mumia Abu-Jamal’s voice and perspective to the airwaves, Prison Radio was amplifying a critical perspective. It has been an amazing journey, one you can participate in by watching “Long Distance Revolutionary.”

For more than a decade, Mumia’s voice had been silenced. He was a journalist trapped in solitary confinement on death row – his melodic silky baritone, extinguished. Mumia Abu-Jamal began his career in journalism in 1969 as a writer for the Black Panther newspaper. Throughout the 1980s, he was a prominent broadcast journalist in Philadelphia. Like many Black men of his generation, he entered prison, arriving at Graterford in 1981.

In July 1992, I handed Mumia Abu-Jamal a microphone and his broadcast career resumed. These were his first radio broadcasts since he was shot and arrested. For a few hours on that hot summer day in rural Pennsylvania, Mumia was back in a funky old recording studio… even the thick Plexiglas separating talent from engineer was the same. The only difference was the heavily armed guards and his tightly shackled wrists.

For the last two decades we have produced weekly broadcasts. I have found Mumia’s perspectives searing and profoundly illuminating. He tackles the vast implications of incarceration head on. And his delivery is unique and compelling. I often relate that he has the vocal talent of James Earl Jones, though trapped in a concrete box. He is a world class broadcast journalist. But beyond the talent, and brilliant writing, he also infuses each essay with a profound humanity and respect for his subjects.  

Such a compelling belief in the poor runs counter to the government’s right wing narrative. It is also a perspective that would not go unnoticed and unpunished. Battling and breaking through the censorship of Mumia’s voice has been a tremendous fight. As Mumia states, “The state would rather give me an Uzi than a microphone.” And as Mumia would say: keep listening, keep rumbling, and take this journey with us. You can start by going to see the film or bringing it to your town.

Noelle Hanrahan, founder of Prison Radio, is a producer on the Street Legal Cinema production “Long Distance Revolutinoary: A Journey With Mumia Abu-Jamal.” 

*Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Blog at

Up ↑