Hey Reddit, I'm Shane Bauer. In 2009, I was living in Syria, where I was working as a journalist. While on a trip with friends, I was apprehended near the Iran-Iraq border and spent 26 months in prison in Tehran. Four of those months were spent in solitary confinement.

I wrote about the experience in my book, "A Sliver of Light", which was released last month.

My experience in prison inspired me to focus my reporting on the prison system in the U.S. and around the world. The size of the U.S. prison population tripled in just twenty years, and the U.S. holds more people in solitary confinement than any other country in the world.

Over the course of the next year, I'm crowdfunding to be able to report on the prison system full-time as an independent journalist. You can learn more about and support that project here: http://www.beaconreader.com/projects/the-prison-problem


Comments: 515 • Responses: 30  • Date: 

2Much2Na218 karma

I know it was an awful experience, but did you think, as a journalist, how awesome the story would be?

ShaneBauer487 karma

There were times that I was seeing things as a journalist. Like when I was being interrogated and my interrogator told me that Baghdad was actually a Persian city. He said that Iran would once again control Baghdad some day. I found myself pushing him to be more specific, to see whether he would let something slip, some juicy line.

If I could undo that experience now, even after it is done, I would. Sure, I am going to make the best out of it and I am grateful for the insight it gave me, but I think that we as a culture tend to overvalue suffering, like it is some gateway into a higher realm. I don't really buy that. Suffering helps you better understand suffering, and what you can take, but it's not "worth it." Certainly not for a story.

Kalieat185 karma

what type of food did they feed you ?

ShaneBauer397 karma

Rice, stews, hamburgers, chicken, fish, potato salad, lentils, bread, jam, hardboiled eggs. One guard told me political prisoners get better food than the general population.

matchingjackets166 karma

How long have you been working for the CIA?

ShaneBauer205 karma

I've heard that one before.

joenifty140 karma

Did they ever try to push you to convert to Islam?

ShaneBauer382 karma

No, the authorities never did. The only time anyone tried to convert me to Islam was when Josh and I happened to meet an Al Qaeda man who was in a bathroom next to the courtyard we were in. We snuck some conversation. He said everyone knew we were innocent and that he hoped we would get free. He also said we should convert to Islam because we would "sleep better at night." It wasn't exactly what I would have expected of a conversion attempt from Al Qaeda.

imba8137 karma

Did you hallucinate while in solitary? Or was it not that level of sensory deprivation.

ShaneBauer219 karma

I had some weird thing happen with my eyes where I would temporarily lose part of my vision for a while. Sarah, who is now my wife, hallucinated pretty dramatically in a terrifying way once.

noonoo_92106 karma

Did you have any interactions with the prisoners of the 2009 riots?

ShaneBauer219 karma

Yes, most people in our ward were from the 2009 post-election protests. Some of them are still there. I admire those people so much. I had a neighbor to my cell who was so nonchalant about being there. He told me that his imprisonment was a part of the "road to democracy."

champbell201288 karma

What would you say (pop culture wise) changed the most in those 26 months?

ShaneBauer202 karma

When I got back people were walking around looking at their phones. Smart phones went from almost no one having them, to being everywhere, in three years.

steve76ers75 karma

How did you get yourself through it all?

ShaneBauer146 karma

That's a complicated question I don't fully have the answer to. How do we all make it through anything difficult. We just somehow find ourselves doing it without knowing how. In solitary confinement, I watched ants, memorized Morse Code, snuck conversations with prisoners down the hall. Finally connecting with Sarah and Josh after four months helped me get through. Insisting on my dignity with the guards helped me get through. Knowing that we had so much support on the outside helped me. The amazing bravery of the Iranians I was in prison with inspired me.

steve76ers45 karma

Wow, thanks, it's a pretty amazing story. Does the experience affect you day to day in any way positively or negatively?

ShaneBauer94 karma

I'd say it has affected me positively and negatively. It certainly gave me a new appreciation for life and freedom. On the negative side, knowing what incarceration is like can be a burden. It's hard to forget, and it can be hard to carry it.

wandernauta70 karma

Would you ever go back to the Middle East?

ShaneBauer134 karma

I hope to go back soon actually. One thing I am hoping to report on is the involvement of US companies in prisons in the Middle East and how American ideas of incarceration are starting to take hold there.

ShaneBauer127 karma

Also, I love the Middle East. I've spent years there. I speak Arabic. I miss it. I can't wait to go back.

wandernauta42 karma

Wow! I'm astonished and impressed. I think that, if I were in your shoes, I'd stay well away from anything related to prisons, or to the Arab world, and just take up pottery or flower arranging or something else harmless. Incredible.

Thanks for answering my question!

ShaneBauer79 karma

I like planting and arranging herbs on my back porch too!

Creativesmoke53 karma

What went through your head, when you realized that you are going to be a free man?

ShaneBauer116 karma

It's not true. I don't believe it. I can't wait to see Sarah. I can't wait to hug my mom and my dad and my sisters. Am I really going to get to walk outside? Will I be able to take my books out of the prison with my secret journals stuffed in the spines? What will they think when they find the pruno in our bathrooms? Is this a trick? Are they taking us to another prison? I have to be ready to refuse any confession at the gates of the prison. Is this really happening? This can't be true.

GyHartman49 karma

I want to know more about your experience:

  • Were you tortured/beaten?
  • Did you have a toilet, or have to live in your own filth?
  • Were you fed enough?
  • Did they use sleep deprivation on you?
  • Did you get medical care if you were sick?
  • Why did they arrest you? Why did they release you?
  • Was there a reason (misbehavior, etc) that they put you in solitary, or was it just a whim?
  • How did they release you? Did a US, UN, or allied helicopter pick you up? Did they just dump you in downtown Tehran? What?
  • How did you feel when you were released?

ShaneBauer248 karma

I did get into a couple fights with guards, but the administration freaked out about it. They were concerned about loose canon guards beating us. We were valuable to them, so they wanted to make sure we didnt come out with broken bones. Other prisoners told us stories of being tortured though. Sometimes, when we heard people being beaten we'd pound on the door to cause a ruckus until a guard came running. Josh and I would ask, "What is this, Guantanamo?" They hated that. That would usually make them stop.

ShaneBauer133 karma

I was tortured by being subject to 4 months of solitary confinement. The UN says anything over 15 days of solitary can constitute torture.

In most of the ward I was in, prisoners didn't have toilets in their cells but had to press a button and wait for a guard to come and bring them to the bathroom. Later, Josh and I were put in a cell with a toilet.

I was fed enough, yes.

They didn't use sleep deprivation.

I did get medical care. At one point I was taken to the country's top gastroenterologist to deal with an ulcer I had.

The arrested us because we were near the border. One of the border guards called us over to him. We thought he was Iraqi so we went to him. When we got to him we discovered we were in Iran.

ShaneBauer35 karma

Thanks so much for participating everyone. Great questions!

RedditRalf28 karma

Did the solitary confinement have any long lasting mental health problems on you?

ShaneBauer108 karma

I think solitary confinement probably has lasting mental health impacts on everyone. The UN says that anything over 15 days in solitary can cause permanent or lasting damage. Studies have shown that after 2 or 3 days, brain waves in solitary shift towards stupor. There is no way for me to know what problems originated in solitary or were a part of the general trauma of the situation, but getting free was really challenging. It took me a while to really adjust to being around people. In the early days, I was unable to read facial expressions. I couldn't choose items off a menu. The ability to choose is actually a skill that we maintain and can loose. When I came out of prison my brain felt overloaded. I'd say it took about a year and a half to re-acclimate.

Cornflip28 karma

What is your opinion on current US-Iranian relations? Do you think they've been moving in a good direction recently, even with some setbacks?

ShaneBauer37 karma

I do think they've been moving in a better direction. There are still major factions in both the US and Iranian side that want to sabotage this progress and it's still not clear whether these talks will be successful.

noodle-face25 karma

When you were in prison, did you think there was a possibility that could be your final resting place?

ShaneBauer49 karma

I did think it was possible at first, but after a while I knew that we were pawns in a political game and that Iran would eventually get something from the US or give up. I felt pretty sure that it was a matter of time, but I didn't ever know how much time.

bthewirz25 karma

What will you focus on re: US prison system? What kinds of changes are you hoping for?

ShaneBauer36 karma

There are a lot of issues I plan to focus on. I can't get too detailed about the specific stories I'm working on without blowing the lid before they are published, but I am looking at a lot of issues related to prison conditions. One issue I'm looking at now is about the ways in which US prison model is expanding globally, in terms of the spread of supermax style prisons and private prisons.

I am also interested in the sheer mass of our prison population. I think we are at a turning point right now. Many people in this country see that warehousing people isn't working, so I think now is a really good time to dig deep into incarceration issues.

karmanaut21 karma

For the times that you were not in solitary, what were the other prisoners like, and how did they treat you? Any differently because you were an American?

ShaneBauer62 karma

Sarah, Josh, and I were never allowed to interact with other prisoners. We were in a ward for political prisoners and no one could interact with other prisoners outside their cell. When we left the cell, we had to be blindfolded like everyone else. We were treated differently because we were American. We were more isolated than a lot of people, but we were also protected from physical torture because we were valuable to the Iranian government. We were currency to them, so they wanted to keep us from coming out looking physically harmed.

gefiltefishfiend13 karma

Were the prisons in Iran much worse than the prisons in the US?

ShaneBauer53 karma

I don't think it is useful to make broad generalizations that evaluate either country as being better or worse. There are different ways each is worse or better than the other. Iran physically tortures people regularly. They have the second highest rate of execution in the world. What I found in the US though is that we use solitary confinement in a way that is far more extreme. We have around 80,000 people in solitary confinement on any given day. We also have people held for over 30 years in solitary confinement. There are thousands of people in the hole who haven't committed violent acts in prison. I wrote about this for Mother Jones here: http://www.motherjones.com/special-reports/2012/10/solitary-confinement-shane-bauer

We also incarcerate way more people than Iran does. In other ways, there are a lot of similarities. We incarcerate people without trial for years, some over a decade, at Guantanamo Bay for example.

webcurator13 karma


ShaneBauer37 karma

That's a broad question. I wouldn't give the same advice going to London as I would to Baghdad...

One of the things that was so bizarre about how we fell into this is that we weren't in an explicitly dangerous place. We were in Iraqi Kurdistan, which gets 2 million tourists a year. It was on the NYT's top 41 places to visit in 2011. Its an autonomous region in Iraq, separate from the rest of the country. Our guards were down and we unintentionally got too close to the border.

There have been times that I have intentionally gone to dangerous places like Baghdad or Darfur. I talked to everyone I could find who had been there. I hired a local fixer to tell me where was safe to go and where wasn't. I got emergency insurance. The main thing is to prepare. Don't be cavalier. A lot of places can feel safe day to day, and usually are, but you have to always remember that you are somewhere you don't know. You have to ask for help to understand that place.

whuang812 karma

If you could describe the experience in one word. What would it be?

ShaneBauer44 karma


espn14216 karma


ShaneBauer9 karma

I'm excited about the influence of the US prison model globally, the ways new surveillance technologies are being used in prisons (some of which are later implemented outside prisons), the FBI's surveillance of people who are in contact with prisoners with political cases, the cutting of prisoners' medications to cut costs, etc., etc.

opg3216 karma

Where you ever in Iran before being held hostage?

ShaneBauer9 karma

No, I wish. I would love to see Iran outside of it's prisons, but I haven't outside of our drive to the prison and a few short trips out of the prison.

kernanallday6 karma

Did non-political prisoners show any dislike or hatred towards you because you were treated differently?

ShaneBauer13 karma

Everyone in our ward were political prisoners.

labelmaker555 karma

I saw the Knight Foundation tweet about this. Very interesting!

As a journalist, what are your thoughts on the future of independent journalism? It seems to me like an independent journalist can get a lot more done with less bias with access to independent funding.

ShaneBauer13 karma

This is exactly why I am interested in working with Beacon on this project: http://www.beaconreader.com/projects/the-prison-problem.

I have always been a freelancer. I love freelancing because it's the best way to be independent. I work on the stories I want to work on, then find a home for them. But I don't love freelancing because, as a freelancer, you spend so much time hustling for funding and not reporting or writing. I'm excited about Beacon because it potentially solves both problems. What can be better for journalism than for writers to have the resources they need and still be independent, free of the pressure to fit a subject into the editorial slant of whomever they work for?

Filous14 karma

Did they force you to do some sort of things? Sorry if that's a hard question.

ShaneBauer20 karma

They did force me to live in a cell for 26 months, 4 of them alone. They forced me to wear a blindfold outside of my cell. Other than that, no not really.