The Backstory: Shane Bauer

Shane Bauer talks about reporting from a Solitary Housing Unit in a California prison as a reporter with personal experience of being imprisoned.

Shane Bauer, who has been an Investigative Fund reporter since 2009, was one of three Americans captured by Iranian forces while hiking in the Iraq-Iran border area. The three of them were held hostage from 2009 to 2011, and Bauer spent four months in solitary confinement. In this Backstory, Bauer talks about embedding in Iraq, how his personal experiences shaped his recent reporting about solitary confinement in California prisons, and helpful sources in his investigations. —Eds.

Eric Wuestewald: To start off with, can you tell me how your personal experience in Iran shaped your reporting in Pelican Bay?

Shane Bauer: Yeah. I mean, first of all, when I was released and I came back to the US, within a couple of weeks after I got back here, I heard about a huge hunger strike in California involving some 12,000 people. They were protesting conditions of solitary confinement. So that really resonated with me because I had been through hunger strikes for similar reasons in Iran. Or, at least protesting my conditions. And the fact that there were so many people across several prisons in solitary confinement was really shocking. That was definitely what drew my attention in the first place.

Months after that I really started digging into this. I actually heard about a man who died named Christian Gomez. I think he died in February in Corcoran Prison, hunger striking. And there was very little information about him, about the circumstance of his death, but it seemed that there was some kind of neglect — he had medical issues. So I thought about this person and started looking into him and basically set up some interviews with groups that are closely working on this issue. There were legal groups, prisoner rights groups, and [I did] interviews with people about him [Gomez] and the situation he was in. Once I started doing that, really quickly, this whole system started unfolding, and I realized that that’s really what this story was. And that was the kick-off point.

I was reporting something that I had experienced, in a sense, so it was really close to home. And it helped me understand at least the psychological aspect of what these guys were going through.

Wuestewald: When you were doing the reporting, did you find it hard to get access to inmates or prison guards? And did you tell them at all about your experience?

Bauer: This is a big question I had when I started working on this story, which was how am I going to get to interview inmates? I hadn’t done work in US prisons before. And I knew that the situation was very restrictive in California. And I knew that there was a lot of [inaudible] prisons from requesting interviews with specific inmates. And I knew that people didn’t get to go inside SuperMaxes very often. So I decided I wanted to correspond by letter with some prisoners and at the same time I was going the official route to get into Pelican Bay. I ended up having to spend months, really, just going back and forth, [inaudible] with prisoners. And it would be a ten-day, two-week turnaround for one letter to go and get a response. But when I went to Pelican Bay prison, I was very restricted in who I could speak to. I was provided with an inmate, initially, to interview. And he was somebody who was [inaudible] on other prisoners.

They did know about my situation. I never came forward and told them about it, but they knew well before Pelican Bay, my interactions with them [inaudible] the Department of Corrections [inaudible] asked me about it, and they were curious.

Wuestewald: Do you think that made them more likely to talk to you, or made it easier for them to talk to you?

Bauer: You know, I don’t know actually. When the hunger strike happened, Pelican Bay allowed some journalists in., which hadn’t happened in a long time, ’cause it was actually a new thing, journalists going inside, and I know the [inaudible] another reporter that had visited, and everybody gets the same tour, and even interviewed the same prisoner. It could have been just policy at the time, and I never had an indication that my situation in particular pushed them to give me any special treatment.

Wuestewald: When you were actually in the prison, investigating the reasons why certain people were sent into solitary, did you find it hard to get information from inmates, even when they were talking to you. Was there a fear of some sort of repercussion against them or anything up to that extent?

Bauer: Most of the investigating into that I did outside the prison. I would correspond with inmates but everything really came down to policy documents or case documents for particular prisoners or I would research the evidence that was used in different cases. So my understanding of the whole policy came out that way. And when I went to Pelican Bay, the purpose of that trip was really to see the SHU [Solitary Housing Unit] and get a sense of it and to put questions to the authorities there, more than to interview prisoners. I of course wanted to interview prisoners much more than I was allowed to, but it wasn’t a situation where I was needing to get some key piece of information; it was more fleshing out their own experience.

Wuestewald: What shocked you the most about your investigation?

Bauer: That’s hard to say. There were a lot of things that shocked me. I would be torn between the length of time that people spend in the SHU, but that aspect of this story wasn’t new information. It was known, it was already out there. People had written about the lengths that people spent there, 10, 20, up to 40 years in solitary confinement. So that was certainly shocking but I guess the thing that I covered in the investigation that was shocking was reasons how people are getting in there, the evidence that was used. I pored through dozens of cases and was [inaudible] new stuff, books that were being used to validate inmates as gang members, drawings, newspaper articles, that kind of stuff was shocking. And the political nature of a lot of the stuff that was used in people’s validations, it had a political bent to it, and a lot of prisoners who were activists on the inside [inaudible], that was definitely something that shocked me.

Wuestewald: How, as a reporter, do you manage your personal experience with trauma? Do you find it colors your work in any way? And how would you recommend other reporters go about reporting similar situations?

Bauer: In this case, I did feel like it “colored my work,” you could say, and I think a lot of people’s best reporting is on subjects that they know and they’re close to and this is one that I knew. Sometimes when we’re investigating things where we’re digging through documents, things like that, we leave out the personal aspect [inaudible] that’s really at the heart of all of it in the end. Investigating these people who’re in there for so many years [inaudible], what they’re going through, and in this case I had some insight. So it made sense for me to share it, so it’s not just numbers.

In any story, whether it involves [inaudible] or something else that the person who is writing, had something that they can add to it themselves, to bring it to life, I think that they should.

Wuestewald: When you were doing investigative reporting in Iraq, you undoubtedly encountered trauma on a regular basis. Do you think that prepared you at all for your personal experience or for your prison investigation?

Bauer: I don’t know if the trauma part of Iraq prepared me for the prison investigation but [inaudible] this type of reporting but still in the same vein.

Wuestewald: For any future reporters who want to do investigative reporting in a conflict zone, would you recommend they go independently like you did, or would you recommend they embed with certain groups? What would you consider the safest way to get information while still getting good quality information?

Bauer: I think that’s two separate questions. I think as far as the reporting, going independently is much more needed. I think that embedding is important too, but a lot of people do that. In that conflict though, we didn’t hear enough of, my opinion is, the other side, I mean, outside the US military. That was a challenging conflict to do that in, and when I went, it was much safer than it was two-three years before. It’s riskier to be unembedded in a lot of situations. There’s a lot of people that do this, you know, there’s a lot of people in Iraq. You just really have to take the right precautions. You should know how it’s done, you know, before you even get there. [Inaudible.] I never felt like I was in a situation where I was in danger.

Wuestewald: What sparked your interest in going [to Iraq], to begin with?

Bauer: I’d been living in the Middle East for years before that and was living in Syria at that time. I had been reading up on the Awakening Councils, which was the focus of one of my stories that I did there. I lived in Damascus; there were a lot of Iraqi refugees there. It was a way for me to be in touch with what was going on in Baghdad without actually being there. At that time it was really expensive to be there. It wasn’t the kind of place I could set up and live in, and then find stories from there, so the second-best situation was being next door in Syria, where I was at least attached to a lot of Iraqis, got to know people there, and talk to them.

Wuestewald: Especially when following up on clandestine operations, or Special Forces, were there any particular tricks that you discovered for conducting investigative reporting in a war zone?

Bauer: Something that was really helpful in that story was going to think tanks here. There’s a ton of think tanks in the US and I would go there and find people who worked in the Special Forces before, or had some connection, just call them up and talk to them about it. I was led onto that story while I was actually in Baghdad and this is something that came up while I was staying there, and it was just from talking to Iraqis. That’s the kind of story I would never have found if I was embedded. At some point I had to step outside that immediate situation and start speaking with former Special Ops people and a lot of them were really helpful and were pretty open about it. That really connected a lot of the dots for me.

Wuestewald: Do you plan to return to Iraq or the rest of the Middle East anytime soon or are you continuing to focus on the prison system right now?

Bauer: I don’t plan on going back to the Middle East immediately but I do at some point, to live, going back, working there. But right now, definitely interested in prisons here and criminal justice in the US, at least in the near future, and probably working on stories incorporating both criminal justice and the Middle East — these are both things that I’m really interested in and I don’t know if I’m going to ultimately choose one or the other. But I think, for right now, I’m going to focus in some more on US stories.

About the reporter


Shane Bauer

Shane Bauer is a senior reporter at Mother Jones magazine.