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‘Being in Isolation, It Physically Hurts’

Sarah Shourd and Jerry Elster both did hard time—she as a political hostage in Iran, he for a 1983 gang murder. Now they’re collaborating on a new play about the torments of solitary confinement.  


Jerry Elster and Sarah Shourd

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Jerry Elster at Tehachapi Prison in 1992, nine years into his eventual 26-year sentence for murder.

Photo: Courtesy of Jerry Elster

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Sarah Shourd in Beirut in 2009, shortly before she was captured and imprisoned by the Iranian government.

Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Shourd

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This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.  

Name: Jerry Elster
Job: Community activist
Age: 52
Residence: Richmond 

Name: Sarah Shourd
Job: Journalist and playwright
Age: 37
Residence: Oakland

Over the last
several years, Jerry Elster and Sarah Shourd have devoted their lives to ending mass incarceration in the United States and, in particular, to exposing the cruelty and overuse of solitary confinement. They have unique perspectives on the issue: From 2009 to 2010, Shourd was one of three American hikers imprisoned as a political hostage by the Iranian government. In total, she spent 410 days in solitary detention. Elster was convicted of murdering a rival gang member in 1983 at the age of 20. He spent the next 26 years behind bars in California state prisons, much of the first five of those years isolated in solitary housing units. Over the last two years, Shourd has been consulting with Elster on the development of her new play, The Box (July 6–30 at Z Space in the Mission). The show, written by Shourd and directed by Michael John Garcés, is inspired by the true stories of people who’ve done time in solitary: Shockingly, there are as many as 100,000 inmates in isolation cells on any given day in the United States. In advance of the show’s premiere, San Francisco brought the two former prisoners together to discuss what incarceration and isolation really do to a human being. 

Sarah Shourd:
I was recently interviewed for a PBS series called The Brain with David Eagleman. They did one episode on whether the brain can function normally in isolation. Do you think that solitary confinement actually did damage to you mentally?

Jerry Elster: Oh, for sure. We’re social beings. We need social stimulation as much as we need the sun, as much as we need water and food. You need that mental stimulation.

SS: Being in isolation, it physically hurts. It’s not just an abstract “Oh, I’m in a bad mood.” “Oh, I’m depressed.” The psychological pain translates into physical pain: It’s the mourning, the loss of everything you’ve ever loved, the loss of yourself as you start to lose touch with your own identity. It’s not knowing if you’ll ever get it back. Human beings are relational. Everything that defines us is in relation to other people, objects, activities, ideas, books. If all of that is taken away, your identity starts to warp.

JE: What was different for you is that you had that hope that one day you were going to be coming home. I didn’t think I was ever going to get out. When I went to the parole board the first time, they showed me that I was never coming home. “You assaulted a staff member.” “You were violent toward prisoners.” “You pose an unreasonable threat to society.” So I had to make a decision. I knew what it was like to go back into the dark. I was so scared that I wouldn’t find myself again, so I said, “You know what? I’m not going to throw myself away for these people.” I started liking the person that I was.

SS: You’ve told me before about a guard who you got along with, and I modeled one of my characters in The Box off of him. Do you have contact with him still? Is he still a guard? 

JE: No, he retired. Now he won’t even answer me on Facebook. He was a short, older black man. We used to have good conversations. After three years he asked me, “How would you define our relationship? Because I consider you to be my friend.” “You’re a decent person,” I said, “but we can never be friends. If I was running down that hall and you got the order to blow my brains out, you’d do it.” He looked really hurt and said, “Do you really believe that?” 

SS: That interaction is so fascinating—how can an honest human friendship be based on power and hierarchy? Yet at the same time, hierarchy and power are pretty much impossible to escape in prison. Demanding respect felt like an essential part of survival to me. There was one guard I called Mask Lady because she always hid her face behind a surgical mask. She didn’t speak to me once in 410 days—only grunting at me while I stumbled blindfolded down the hall to the showers. She used to put her fingers on my lower back—

JE: She was guiding you.

SS: Yeah. Another day I just refused to move. The guard started yelling at me in Farsi, but I just stood there. It felt good to force her to acknowledge me as a living, thinking being. Another time, they were hours late taking me out for “fresh air.” I was worried they’d skipped me, so I was arguing with another guard when suddenly she reached up and slapped me. Without thinking, I slapped her back. It felt like I understood much better my raw animal power. If you hold your ground, if you look someone in the eye, they usually back down. Even guards, they would back down. 

JE: You know what that shows me? You still had a lot of faith in humanity. By the time I got to prison, that was gone for me. I didn’t give a fuck. I felt like I had been betrayed by society and I owed them nothing. What you got from me was going to be minimum. That’s why I didn’t even have a problem with the hole at first. 

SS: You didn’t mind solitary confinement?

JE: In the hole, when I was locked up, I didn’t have to worry about anybody sneaking up and coming to stick me. I knew which direction you had to come. I just had to make it through another day.

SS: So what changed?

JE: The simple explanation is that I started maturing after a decade in prison, and I realized I’d been giving away my power. It was then that I recognized my own vulnerability. At that point, I wanted out of the hole.

SS: Was it like an epiphany for you, or something more gradual?

JE: It was an awakening for me, spiritually speaking, when I realized I wanted out. What can you do in the hole to improve yourself? That’s the life of a caged animal. I decided to give my power over to God. It became a spiritual walk for me. Did you ever have any spiritual experiences in the hole?

SS: My mom was an atheist. I didn’t grow up religious. But I believe in God in an abstract way. I believe in something bigger than myself, that this is not a random universe. When I was in prison, I used to wake up and wait for the light to come in through my window, which was high up and covered in bars and perforated metal. It was just a sliver of light, but it came to symbolize so much. I’d watch it creep across the wall all day. Usually I was up for hours waiting for it, but one morning I opened my eyes and it was already there. All the dust particles in the cell were illuminated, and the room was filled with a golden glow. It felt like God was there with me. Every floating particle represented a person I loved—my mom, my friends and family. I decided then and there I would do everything I could to stay sane and get back to them.

JE: So did you connect that to religion?

SS: Yeah, at the same time the Stockholm syndrome was also kicking in. I was in a Muslim prison, all the guards were devout, and the call to prayer sounded three times a day. I started to pray a lot, and my relationship with my interrogator was getting kind of twisted. I called him Father Guy, which is pretty revealing. [Laughs.] We’d have these long moral debates about whether he should let me call my mother. He’d say, “I don’t want you to be here, Sarah. You’re innocent and you’re a good person, but how do we know what God wants?” I’d sit in my cell turning it over and over. Why me? Why am I being punished? Maybe I’m supposed to become Muslim? At the same time I’m thinking strategically, like, if I convert, maybe they’ll let me out? The desire to please your captors is so strong. I thought I was manipulating them, but I was losing myself. 

JE: I experienced the same thing. The parole officers would dangle these little carrots to tempt me to see their side—“You’re going to go home one of these days, Jerry”—and it was like having a huge slice of German chocolate cake and a cold glass of milk placed right in front of you. Then, suddenly, the guards slide in something like, “Hey, Jerry, what’s going on with the Crips over there?”

SS: They wanted you to snitch?

JE: Yep. Just when I was starting to discover who I really was, I realized I might be vulnerable to their manipulation.

SS: Is that when you stopped being violent?

JE: I would still do whatever I had to do to survive. Period. But I wouldn’t harm anybody who didn’t try to harm me first. I decided to do anything in my power to steal back young lives from the system. I wanted to get to them before they became lifelong captives. 

SS: So let’s talk about how we are different. My imprisonment was pretty much random. I mean, I was an anti-war activist, and I followed my values by moving to the Middle East. But the way that I was captured and imprisoned was completely insane. Northern Iraq is very pro-American, a place where even Israeli adventurers go. Travelers. It’s autonomous. It’s not a war zone. It’s never been dangerous for Americans—though it is now, with ISIS. But basically, we were hiking behind a tourist site, and we stumbled upon the Iranians. We fell into their lap.

JE: You were a trinket. They knew you weren’t spies, but they thought, “Look at this jewel, here’s an opportunity.”

SS: Exactly. But the same can’t be said for you. Three-year-old Jerry was far more likely to end up in prison than three-year-old Sarah. Did you ever think that the prison system saw you as a trinket as well, as an object that had value to them?

JE: Of course. I think the worst mistake that any black person in this country can make is to think that slavery doesn’t still exist. In fact, institutional racism is even more ingrained than slavery. The mindset is, you’re able to roam a little bit, but when you get out of line, you’re going to get slapped and stomped hard. You belong to the United States. Any black person. Any person of color: You are the property of the United States. There was never a doubt that I was property, and that was probably part of my anger. Part of my rebellion.

SS: But you did take a human life, right? How do you feel about that fact?

JE: It took me a long time in prison to admit it, but I didn’t have the right to take that life. The prison system is so racially biased and unjust, just like the rest of society, that it’s easy to blame everyone but yourself. I should have been fighting the real fight, though, advancing the progress of our people, not messing around with gangs. I’ve been victimized my whole life, but I’ve also offended on others.

SS: I think a lot of people justify prisons or the use of solitary confinement in this way: that the people in the hole are the worst of the worst, and they deserve it. How do you argue against that justification?

JE: Well, where do you draw the line? OK, you robbed the store. You stole the bread. You did the assault or the murder. You’re a gang member. Now we’re going to put all of you in prison together—or worse, all of you in the hole side by side. That’s how we turn human beings into monsters.

SS: Most people who spend years in the hole come out angry and broken. They end up homeless or self-medicating their PTSD with drugs and alcohol. But what do you think is the best alternative? What would you do with the most heinous prisoners?

JE: Educate them. Bring in the specialists. Ask, “Why is this person failing to connect with his humanity?” We don’t need prisons, we need mental institutions.

SS: But we can’t just deny violent people exist. Even inside prison, there are sexual predators who prey on young guys. I don’t think rapists should be on lockdown 24 hours a day, but they should be taken to a place where they can’t harm others.

JE: That’s where we disagree. Prisons don’t need to exist. As a community, if you provide the resources, you won’t need a prison system.

SS: I’m not an abolitionist, but I do believe prisons should be rigorous places of learning—they should open up a path to a better life. That’s why I hope people come see this play. That was a little shameless, I guess, but I mean it. Our prison system lacks transparency. My hope is to bring this practice of solitary confinement out in the open, where it can be scrutinized. Prisons don’t let the public in. They won’t even let journalists in. We’re inviting the public to walk in prisoners’ shoes.


Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco

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